Building Early Education Opportunity Through Cultural Equity: The Hawaii Case Study

Q & A with ECFC Member
Al Castle,
Chief Executive Officer and Treasurer, The Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation, Honolulu HI



ECFC is always looking for opportunities to increase and share knowledge between and among members.  How will the November 2018 Hawaii Study Tour further this effort?

I have been a member of ECFC for some 15 years and have learned a great deal from some of the best professional foundation executives and staff in the business.  As members, we learn from our national funders as well as the work of our regional funders.  The Samuel N. and Mary Castle Foundation, one of America’s oldest foundations, began its mission in 1836, brought kindergartens to Hawaii 120 years ago and obtained public funding for a universal full-day mandatory kindergarten system in 1943.  We are hoping to do the same in the preschool world of 3 and 4-year-olds.

It is a great pleasure for the ECFC Hawaii advisory committee, Kamehameha Schools, and the Hawaii Community Foundation to join me in sponsoring this intense learning tour.  We have titled it as “Building Early Education Opportunity Through Cultural Equity:  the Hawaii Case Study.” We shall see how building on the strengths of culture increase parent engagement with their children while boosting the educational achievement and pride of our at-risk Hawaiian keiki.

We often talk of the intersectionality of race, class, and gender in determining so much of the fortunes of our nation ’s families and children.  You have said that adding cultural equity to this list would strengthen our analytical framework.  How does Hawaii exemplify that additional analytical tool?

Hawaii’s long experiences with immigration and multi-cultural, multi-racial life after 1800 provide a complex tapestry of people from all over the world.  A significant portion of the population (21%) is indigenous Native Hawaiians.  This demography typically has done poorly in educational and socio-economic metrics.  Our regional funders along with national partners like the WK Kellogg Foundation have invested heavily in developing a variety of preschools that are culturally-based in traditional Hawaiians’ ways of learning.  In the past decade, our state and private funders have developed innovative responses to the educational needs of our lowest-income and lowest-achieving students.  Realizing how important early education and health is to the trajectory of a child’s life, we have funded language immersion preschools, charter schools with a bi-cultural focus, family-child interaction programs using traditional 2-3-generation family practices, and bi-cultural-bilingual preschools.  All these preschools and health facilities are open to all races and cultures while relying on culturally-based programs to increase learning, achievement, and pride. A comprehensive assessment is in process, and initial reports of positive improvements in educational and pediatric health are encouraging.  The ECFC tour will allow members to view representative types of culturally innovative preschools and to hear of the latest studies on socio-economic needs in the state.

Your family foundation has been nationally recognized as a leader at the end of the 19th century in sponsoring progressive education in Chicago and Hawaii.  Your family brought George Herbert Mead and John Dewey, among other luminaries, to Hawaii to install innovative, progressive education. How has your foundation built on this tradition?

My great-great-grandmother Mary Tenney Castle, an Oberlin College abolitionist, was our founder.  She believed that early education gave an immigrant society, which the USA was then and is now, the best chance for social and economic equity.  She was attracted to John Dewey’s “learning by doing” and student-centered education as it was attractive to Hawaii’s many immigrant groups as well as Native Hawaiian families.  In an era of Jim Crow, she insisted on racial equality and the power of liberal democracy to solve social problems.  Today, our trustees continue her vision by using a cultural equity lens in our grantmaking to ensure educational results in our most at-risk population.  We are blessed every day to be in a position to make at least a small difference for children and families.

How is Hawaii attempting to form a universal preschool system while also working for racial, economic, educational, gender and cultural equity?

The state passed a universal preschool bill in 2014.  We have invested several million dollars in implementing a high-quality system.  Currently, we are working with our partner, the Erikson Institute, to ensure that our elementary schoolteachers assigned to the new Pre-K classrooms receive intense preparation in child development and developmentally-appropriate curricula in early mathematics and pre-literacy.  We also have training programs for the leadership of the public and private preschool sectors.  We have much more to do, but the state is making great strides.

I am honored to welcome my colleagues in ECFC to this laboratory of multi-culturalism and inchoate cultural equity.

Learn more about the Fall 2018 Hawaii Study Tour.