Hunter Villanueva, who will be 5 in September, plays at Paki Park with his sister, Naweo, 3. Hunter would be eligible to start public school in the fall at any regular public school in the state, but the school that serves his district, Waialae Public Charter School, says it doesn't have room for him. Because it is a charter school, it is exempt from having to accept him.
Hunter Villanueva, who will turn 5 in September, would be eligible to start school this fall in any regular public school in the state, but he will have to wait another year because the school that serves his district, Waialae Public Charter School, says it doesn't have room for him.
"It's just unfortunate that we live in a district where that charter school is our home school," said his mother, Kristi Villanueva, who expected his enrollment to be automatic. "If charters can make their own rules and exclude some students, then we shouldn't have to be assigned to them as our home public school."
Conversion charter schools, such as Waialae, are formed when a regular public school converts to charter status, reporting to its own local school board rather than the state Board of Education. Conversion charters remain the "home school" for kids in their district and are required to accept all students in their neighborhood, unlike start-up charter schools, which must attract students entirely on their own.
Under Hawaii law, students may start public elementary school as long as they turn age 5 by Dec. 31, with those born after Aug. 1 classified as "junior kindergarteners." But charter schools are exempt from that law.
"In kindergarten through fifth grade, we take all in-district students whenever they apply," said Wendy Lagareta, chief educational officer of Waialae Charter School. "We've always done that. We limit junior kindergarten enrollment to 10."
She added: "As a charter school, we have the ability to make policies and procedures that are specific to our school and our community. I checked with the Charter School Administrative Office to make sure that my interpretation was the same as their interpretation, and they are supportive."
Lagareta noted that her school took in 40 students from Liliuokalani School after that small campus was shut last year, enlarging Waialae's district. For the past two years, Waialae has limited junior kindergarten to 10 students, and it fills quickly.
"I know I've upset people," she added. "I appreciate the families' situations, but I'm also in the position of having to look after the school."
Hawaii's three other conversion charter schools, however, are following the regulations that apply to regular schools and accepting all students that turn 5 by Dec. 31 of this year, whether in junior kindergarten, kindergarten or a combined class.
"Being that we are a district school, we accept people who live in our district any time of the year," said Maria Gomes, registrar at Lanikai School, a conversion charter. "For kindergarten, they need to be born between Jan. 1 and July 31 of 2007 and for junior kindergarten, Aug. 1 through Dec. 31."
The same applies at Kamaile Academy in Waianae and Kualapuu School on Molokai, and is expected to be the case at the forthcoming Laupahoehoe Public Charter School on Hawaii island.
"Early childhood education is so important to our kids," said Lois Rapoza, attendance clerk at Kamaile, where late-born children in the district are guaranteed a spot. "Our young parents have noticed that the earlier they start school, the more successful they become."
Legislators just passed an ambitious bill to set up a statewide early learning system that would replace junior kindergarten in the fall of 2014. But that is too late for children like Hunter.
His mother said she applied for geographic exceptions at four regular public schools outside of her neighborhood in hopes of enrolling her son, with no luck. She also appealed those cases to the complex area superintendents, without success.
"I want to make other parents aware of the situation, so if they are in a charter district they can register early and apply for a lot of geographic exceptions," said Villanueva, a Kaimuki resident who has her son on waiting lists at other public schools. "Even if I have to drive out of my district, at least I won't have him at home, shut out of kindergarten and falling behind."
Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (D, Kalihi-Pauoa) said that when lawmakers raised the cutoff date for kindergarten entry, requiring children to turn 5 by Aug. 1, they created "junior kindergarten" so that late-born children would not be left out of school. They exempted charters to give them flexibility, but the needs of children living in conversion charter districts did not come up at the time.
"I don't recall that being part of the conversation," Chun Oakland said. "Personally, my preference would be that the conversion schools take late-born children."