In Hawaii, A Traveling Preschool Serves The Homeless

Jan 11, 2016

Two-year-old Jensarina Bano is one of about 20 kids who were at Ka Paalana's traveling preschool on a recent morning.
Credit Molly Solomon

One element of homelessness that doesn’t always get a lot of attention: the impact on young children, and in particular their education. There’s a group on Oahu that focuses on providing free preschool for homeless children and families. HPR’s Molly Solomon paid a visit and has this report.

About a dozen families stand in a circle, holding hands as they sing their morning pule, or prayer. They’re by a parking lot for a pair of homeless shelters in Kapolei. That’s where many of these families are living.

Ka Paalana has nine preschool sites along the Leeward Coast. The Barber's Point site in Kapolei consists of two canvas yurts.
Credit Molly Solomon

As they break from song, a stampede of toddlers head into a nearby canvas structure for breakfast. Inside the tent-like gazebo, different stations are set up, some with books, others with building blocks. The makeshift set-up may sound a bit impermanent, that’s because it is. This is a traveling preschool.

Co-program manager Jin Chang says the preschool, called Ka Paalana or “a light for the future”, was set up to provide education for homeless families in West O‘ahu. Funding for the program comes from Kamehameha Schools, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and federal grants. The Kapolei site is one of nine along the Leeward coast, from the boat harbor in Wai‘anae to Barber’s Point. "We find it’s successful because we’re providing them with some continuity in their life where their life doesn’t have a lot of continuity,” said Chang.

That’s a reality for Jane Bano. She recently moved into the nearby transitional housing shelter after living in her car for three months with her husband and their two kids. Sitting beside her is her two-year old daughter Jensarina. She’s got her hands full in the pretend kitchen station at the preschool. “This is dramatic play it’s where they pretend to cook, be a fireman,” said Bano. “They just pretend they’re doing something.” Jensarina holds a fake banana in one hand and a fake orange in the other. When I ask what she’s making, her mom chimes in, “a smoothie.”

Inside one of the canvas gazebos, parents and children play together. Different stations line the perimeter of the yurt.
Credit Molly Solomon

Kasey Galariada is a site supervisor. She say homeless families often face so many challenges, early education may not be an immediate priority. “They may not want to be here when they originally come,” said Galariada. “But then they see what it does for them and their kids. And I think they see a change in their kids first. It gets their mind going that they want what’s best for their children, what’s best for their future.”

Jane Bano with her two-year-old daughter Jensarina. Bano and her family live in the transitional shelter adjacent to the preschool.
Credit Molly Solomon

For Jane Bano, she says Jensarina and her four-year-old son Jenson, actually want to go to school every day. They’re usually up early in the morning, singing songs they learned at school. “It’s been great because my kids learn a lot. They don’t usually talk, but now they’re talking,” said Bano. “My son is improving, every day he comes home with different words saying different things.”

At the core of Ka Paalana is the idea of teaching children and parents together. Unlike other preschools, parents are required to sit in on the classes too, says site supervisor Kasey Galariada. “I think it provides learning for the whole family. It really benefits them in the future versus just learning in the classroom,” explains Galariada. “It’s kind of teaching them forever, giving them lessons that will go far beyond just the classroom.”

Co-program manager Jin Chang say the biggest challenge is the transient nature of homeless families. “It takes almost 6 weeks to create a relationship,” said Chang. “To have them just leave, for us it’s kind of frustrating. It’s hard for us to do follow ups when we don’t know where they are.”

And with the population of homeless in the islands continuing to grow, Chang expects the demand for the preschool will only increase.