By Mary Westervelt, director of marketing & communications
Dr. Wai‘ale‘ale Sarsona has a mission: to increase access to early learning for families in Hawai’i. Like school leaders across the country, Sarsona faced unexpected challenges when COVID arrived on the islands. But with Hawai‘i’s unique geography and her team’s specific learning goals, she knew the best solution would require thinking differently.
As Vice President of the Hi‘ialo Group for Kamehameha Schools, Sarsona is responsible for overseeing 30 preschool sites, while also supporting the state’s network of Native Hawaiian schools. In total, Kamehameha Schools serves thousands of students and families across the state, as well as supporting additional children through community programs and scholarships.
Crafting a family engagement program that reaches a diversity of communities across the islands can be a challenge. But for Sarsona and her team, it’s also an opportunity to innovate to meet the unique needs of Hawaiian families.
Finding the just-right family engagement approach
When the pandemic forced Kamehameha Schools to close their in-person programs, Sarsona’s team went looking for resources to support families with early learning at home. They needed a program that would be culturally relevant and sensitive to the needs of the at-risk communities they serve. And most importantly, a program that would be accessible to all families.
“Access was critically important,” recalls Sarsona. “You can have the best family engagement activities, but if they can’t access them because they don’t have internet, they don’t have a camera, they don’t have all of these online learning bells and whistles, then none of that is helpful for families.”
Kamehameha ultimately chose Ready4K Trauma-Informed because of the accessibility of the content, and the ability to customize the Community Support Stream to their local context. With the support of a grant from Ready4K, they were able to commit to a three-year implementation of the program.
“I think Ready4K fills a need that no other program I’ve been able to find to date can fill.”Dr. Wai‘ale‘ale Sarsona
Sharing supports designed for Hawaiian families
For Sarsona and her team, the Community Asset Mapping process was an opportunity to bring together family engagement leaders. This included those in Kamehameha Schools as well as partner organizations that were also implementing Ready4K in Hawai‘i. They worked together to curate a set of resources that would meet families’ needs. This included addressing the basic needs many families were struggling with and bolstering connections to their cultural heritage and identity.
“Through working with Sarsona and her team, we learned even more about how to serve families in remote and geographically dispersed communities,” says Françoise Lartigue, content manager for Ready4K. “In our experience, it can be hard to connect families in large, rural regions with the supports they need. The Kamehameha model is one we will be sharing with many partners across the country. They are truly an inspiration.”
Resources to Meet Essential Needs
Since Kamehameha Schools and their partners serve families across the entire state, they began by collecting resources that would be available to families in every community. This allowed them to get essential resources into the hands of their families quickly. Rapid response was essential because other resource providers weren’t able to keep up with the fast-changing nature of the pandemic.
“Things were happening so fast that 2-1-1 was not able to keep up with so much volume as well as change,” says Sarsona. “You had all these new opportunities popping up and their website couldn’t keep track.”
So they used their Ready4K Community Support Stream to share direct links to the time-sensitive supports that they knew families needed most.
Cultural & Language Resources
In addition to curating resources to support families with their immediate basic needs, Kamehameha Schools and their partners compiled a set of resources to connect families to Hawaiian songs, books, and cultural programs.
They also worked with the Ready4K content team to version the messages for their local context. Supporting the broader language revitalization movement that is a part of the Kamehameha Schools’ educational mission was essential.
Sarsona explains that they wanted “to make sure that families would get messages that made sense in their context. That requires understanding when the language matters in our community.” To accomplish this, they chose a few common Hawaiian words to include in the messages. Words selected included “keiki” (child/children), “kupuna” (elders), and “‘ohana” (family).
Once the Community Support Stream was developed, Kamehameha Schools was able to quickly enroll their first few thousand families. While they had originally intended to use their Ready4K licenses for the three- and four-year-olds in their preschool programs, other families began to express interest, too.
“We had community liaisons across the state who generally gave families access to Ready4K, so they may not be our student and they may not be tied to us from a scholarship, but we allowed them to participate if it was of value,” explains Sarsona.
And the feedback families have shared demonstrates that it was, in fact, of great value.
95% of families say Ready4K has helped their child learn and grow (n=77)
Families have clearly seen the impact of Ready4K texts on their children’s development, with 95% of Kamehameha Schools parents saying that Ready4K texts have helped their child grow and learn.
One parent shared, “It’s allowed me to see education happening all around us and finding ways to continue teaching my son even as we are outdoors or in the car. Lots of great, fun and engaging ideas.”
Another parent described how Ready4K gave their family “a sense of normalcy when schools were shut down. It was fun, interactive and interesting. I learned new things to do with my sons.”
98% of families say their relationship with their child is stronger after doing Ready4K activities
97% of families say Ready4K texts have helped them feel supported (n=87)
78% of families say they’ve used a resource shared in the Community Support Stream (n=325)
Parents and caregivers have also shared how Ready4K activities have brought them closer to their children, while supporting them as parents.
98% of Kamehameha Schools parents say their relationship with their child is stronger after doing Ready4K activities, and 97% say that Ready4K texts have helped them feel supported.
The mother of a 5-year-old said, “I like having new and different short tasks that help us to flow better as a family. I also appreciate having self-care reminders for myself. As a mom with a full time job trying to do it all from home, it can often feel very isolating.”
And Kamehameha Schools families have shared their appreciation for the resources shared through the Community Support Stream.
78% say they have used one of these resources, the most popular of which was a free digital book library where families can find stories written in Hawaiian.
According to one parent, the Community Support Stream messages have provided “more knowledge about what’s out in my community for myself and to share.”
Another family described the feeling of “peace of mind, knowing that there are resources out there to help if I ever needed it.”
In their first year with Ready4K, Kamehameha Schools has accomplished their goal of engaging families with an accessible and culturally relevant program. But they’ve also paved the way for other Hawaiian organizations to support their families with Ready4K.
As Kamehameha Schools continues to expand their enrollment, other organizations across the state have already begun to come on board. They’re able to build on the foundation of statewide resources and culturally-versioned content informed by KS and their partners, layering in more local supports to meet their unique community needs.
Reflecting on the role that Ready4K has played in supporting Kamehameha Schools families this past year, Sarsona returns to the simplicity and accessibility of the program. “It was simple. I could do it any time, anywhere with my child…I think it fills a need that no other program I’ve been able to find to date can fill.”
“I feel it’s a great variety of learning for parents to help their children and themselves.
Some parents are having a difficult time during this pandemic and need all the resources they/we can get! Mahalo 🤙”– Kamehameha Schools Family