Kaua‘i keiki benefit from teacher’s leap of faith

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Hāloalaunuiakea Early Learning Center preschoolers get early exposure to Native Hawaiian culture while getting mākaukau for kindergarten, says the school’s director U‘ilani Corr-Yorkman.

The preschool in Ele‘ele, Kaua‘i, serves 45 keiki from as young as 2 years, 8 months to 5-years-old, making sure they have all the skills needed for kindergarten – physically and mentally. “We want to mālama their social and their emotional side before we start getting them ready for academics,” Corr-Yorkman explains. “We make sure we are raising a whole child and not just portions of a child.”

The school’s curriculum is aligned with the Hawai‘i Early Learning Development Standards, and students are grouped by ability, rather than age. “We want to make sure they’re learning at the exact pace they need to be learning,” explains Corr-Yorkman. “We challenge them when they need to be challenged, we nourish them, and we hold them back a little bit longer when they need to be.”

Working with kids and families can be tiring, Corr-Yorkman admits, but Hāloalaunuiakea’s students make it worth it. “I can run my business and just be super grateful by seeing them grow and see the things that they’ve learned, see the simple behavior changes and the academic changes,” she says.

She also gets by with help from ‘ohana and very supportive teachers: “It’s a very interactive job but when you see the children grow – you see the ‘aha!’ moments they have – it makes everything totally worth it.”

Corr-Yorkman knew she wanted to go into early childhood education when she was still a student at Kamehameha Schools. Kaua‘i didn’t offer degrees in early childhood development though, so as a young mother eager to join the workforce, she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education instead. “I was working for the State of Hawai‘i, which was an awesome and rewarding job, it was stable and provided for my family, my ‘ohana,” she describes.

A loan from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was used for furniture, books, supplies and other classroom essentials. – Photo: Alice Silbanuz

But after eight years of teaching in the state’s public school system, she discovered her passion was still with the pre-kindergarten keiki. She wanted to open her own preschool and run a business according to her own rules. “I get to teach how I want to teach and run my program how I want to run my program. If I don’t like something, I can change it. If I like something, I can keep it and run with it and grow on it,” she points out.

Kaua‘i’s commercial real estate market is limited, says Corr-Yorkman, but fortunately her stepfather connected her with the owners of the building Hāloalaunuiakea is housed in. Since the building needed to be renovated, the owners told her not to start paying rent until she started collecting tuition. With financing from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hāloalaunuiakea was up and running within eight months.

The initial funding was critical. “We needed money for everything from the ground up. We had nothing,” Corr-Yorkman describes. “We had no supplies. We had no outdoor playthings, like bikes, and we needed to fence our entire property. We needed bookshelves and books and tables and chairs and anything and everything that you need for a typical classroom, but twice or three times the size of that.”

About Mālama Loans

U‘ilani Corr-Yorkman took advantage of OHA’s Mālama Loan program to get everything she needed to open Hāloalaunuiakea Early Learning Center, which included renovating the building the school is housed in, fencing in the property and purchasing the furniture, learning materials and other school essentials. “We needed all of these staples, all of these things to start off with, and that’s exactly what we used the Mālama Loan funds for. We could get everything going and open and give our services to the public,” she said.

Prior to opening the preschool, Corr-Yorkman had a stable job teaching in the state Department of Education, but she knew she wanted to work in early childhood development, and be her own boss while doing it. “Being a Native Hawaiian woman business owner just gives me chills,” she says. “I think it’s so empowering, so powerful. It’s something I can proudly show to my daughter, to all of the Native Hawaiian children, that these things are possible.”

Applying for a Mālama Loan was a simple process. “I was really crossing my fingers because we weren’t open yet and I felt they were taking a chance on us,” she recalls. “It was like selling them shoes from an empty shoebox. I was so grateful and happy that they believed in our vision.”

Corr-Yorkman has advice for other Native Hawaiians thinking about starting their own businesses: “Anyone that is thinking about taking a leap of faith, I’d say, totally take it and jump as high and as far as you can. You never know what’s going to happen until you try.”

To learn more about OHA’s loan programs, call (808) 594-1924 or visit www.oha.org/loans.