[Story and photos by Mike Foley: Originally published in KALEO, November 29, 1997]
Gerry Nihipali [pictured at right] and Lilian Makaiau have been preparing children for school for 20 years in Laie. They teach preschool for four-year-olds and last year they had children of former students in their classes. Their students mainly come from Laie, but they have had students as far away as Kaneohe and Pupukea. Teaching the children is one of Nihipali and Makaiau’s greatest love and passions.
They got started teaching when the preschool teacher who was teaching their children moved to the mainland. The teacher wanted someone to carry on with the program she had worked so hard to establish. She wanted it to stay in Laie and approached Makaiau about taking the preschool. Nihipali had the space to set up the preschool, and so they told her they’d do it. The teacher gave them all the materials she had been using. They have since amassed a great wea lth of knowledge and materials over the years.
“I couldn’t ever do it by myself. Gerry was the perfect person to do it with. So in 1977 we started the preschool,” commented Makaiau. “We started off with 12 children in each class. At first we helped each other a lot. Then as we got more experienced and confident we taught classes on our own. The classes increased to 15, then to 20, and now 21. We use exactly the same materials in each class.”
Over the years they have weeded out materials and found ones that are better at what they want to achieve in teaching the children. They have gone to classes to increase their knowledge and skills to be better teachers. In addition, they continually collect reference materials and try new things each year. “We teach a phonics-based program, the alphabet, number concepts, and use flash cards. Also, we teach a listening skills program called Happily Ever After,” said Nihipali.
The Happily Ever After program involves the children by listening to a story on a tape. Then the children put a story book together. They answer questions and do worksheets that go along with each story. Stories include 10 of the most well read and known children classics like Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and The Three Bears.
The lack of listening skills and parent involvement are the greatest problems they encounter with children today. They have to repeat themselves a lot more then they did 10 years ago just to get the children to listen and to follow directions. Some of the causes they see for this is too much television, movies, video games, and to an extent computer usage. It takes a lot more talking to get the children really excited and interested in reading.
They find that a lot of parents are not reading to their children, are not involved with them in doing homework, or even doing simple creative activities. They have children who cannot cut, glue, color make things like children used to. Some children in their classes can’t even hold a crayon or pencil and they have no idea of coloring. It is so important for parents to take the time to read, study, and play with their children.
They have children from one extreme to another. Some children are very prepared and it shows that their parents have worked with them and have spent time with them. They can color and write beautifully. They pay attention. They are the ones at the end of the year who are reading and doing very well. As with any school, they have children who are very good, a lot in the middle, and some who need a lot more help.
“We give the children a real head start. Just about every child who has gone through our program has gotten a head start in kindergarten. Parents tell us that their children feel more comfortable. They have more confidence because they can write their name and they know their numbers. Also, they are ahead of the class. Many end up in gifted and talented programs. It is not a guarantee, but a good preschool program can give them a good head start. What really matters the most and has a lasting effect is still the parents’ involvement and encouragement to their children,” said Nihipali.
She noted children will do well if their attendance is consistent, parents check the worksheets, and follow up with their children. If the parents take the time to reinforce what the child brings home twice a week for at least 15 minutes, it will make a big difference.
Nihipali and Makaiau [pictured at left] moved to Laie when they were both 12 years old. Makaiau came from Western Sämoa and Nihipali came from Honolulu. Nihipali and her husband, Ben, have two boys and two girls. Stephanie is in her second year of a master’s program at University of Hawaii. Albert works at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Rachel plays volleyball at BYU Hawai’i, and Samuel, 16, is a junior at Kamehameha. They are expecting their first grandchild this year.
Makaiau has four boys: Shawn, Mana, Shane and Ka’i. Shawn is on an LDS mission in California. Mana is married and lives on the Big Island. Shane is a senior at Kahuku High and Ka’i is a sophomore at Kamehameha. They have one grandson.
The preschool only accepts four-year-olds in their program which is structured academically to prepare children for kindergarten. Classes are held on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for an hour and a half each session. Some years they get a lot of students and some years they have just enough students. Three years ago they had to do a third class because there were more kids on the list.
Parents interested in enrolling their children should contact Nihipali or Makaiau a year ahead, if possible. Their preschool schedule starts a week after public school starts and ends a week before Memorial day in May. They follow the public school holidays and break for the summer.
Both are certified to teach and they have a business license. Besides operating the preschool, Nihipali is a certified physical therapist at Kahuku Hospital where she has worked for over 20 years. Makaiau used to work at Kahuku as a part-time teacher and tutor for 16 years. Just this past September she went to work for Parents and Children Together Early Head Start Program as a home visitor. So, after preschool they rush off to their other careers.