Makai HR Hawaii Business Owner Spotlight: KCAA Preschools of Hawai’i

September 23, 2019 Written by Oralie Chapman

One of the best things about providing outsourced human resources services on Oahu is getting to know the local business owners and managers who run these companies. Hawaii's diverse business community is close knit and teeming with talent. We hope you find their insights as interesting as we do!


For this Hawaii business owner spotlight, we interviewed Christina Cox, M.S. Ed., President & CEO of KCAA Preschools of Hawai'i. Christina has overseen the fiscal and operational management of KCAA's services and programs in the role of president for 19 years. Here is the Q & A:

Q. What is KCAA Preschools of Hawai'i?

A. "KCAA Preschools of Hawaii offers early education and care to children ages 2-5. We offer Kindergarten Camp for our kindergarten-bound children. We teach over 900 students per year with about 50 percent of our students coming from low-income families who are able to take advantage of a variety of state and federal tuition aid programs in addition to our long-standing in-house fund supported by local trusts and foundations and internal funds. About 80 percent of students who graduate from KCAA go on to public school kindergarten."


Q. Where are your schools located?

A. "KCAA has six nationally accredited Oahu preschools located in Kaka'ako-Muriel, Kailua-Atherton, Hawaii Kai-Kuapa, Kalihii-Na Lei, Moiliili-Mother Rice and Kahala-Wai Kahala."


Q. What is KCAA Preschools of Hawai'i's history?

A. "Founded in 1895 by The Woman's Board of Missions, The Free Kindergarten and Children's Aid Association of the Hawaiian Islands (FKCAA) - as it was then called - was Hawaii's first eleemosynary organization, and offered the first teacher training and free kindergartens to all of Hawaii's children with an emphasis on the children of the plantation workers. The founders believed that kindergartens would give children a positive start to a lifetime of learning as well as social skills to the children of working parents. The schools were based on three critical beliefs about early education: That quality early childhood education should be accessible and affordable for all children, that the teaching of young children required a unique curriculum and highly trained teachers, and that children of different races sharing classrooms learn respect for each other's cultures. KCAA led the way in desegregation efforts in Hawaii; integrating all of their schools within five years of inception. From its start, the association worked to educate Hawaii citizens on the value of early childhood education and actively campaigned for public kindergartens; finally seeing success in 1943 when $113,000 was granted to open 12 kindergartens. It took several decades before FKCAA was able to switch its focus entirely to preschool. The organization voted to rename itself KCAA in 1949 because tuition was now being charged. KCAA has had a long tradition of making its classes affordable, however, with the help of a tuition aid-program."


Q. What is the unique curriculum taught at KCAA?

A. "KCAA provides children with high-quality, systematic, research-based curricula. The Creative Curriculum is used in all classes. It meets both the Hawaii Preschool Content Standards and the Hawaii Early Learning and Development Standards, and prepares children for future school success. All of our classroom staff receives specialized training in curriculum to help ensure the successful implementation of the program."


Q. Describe your story and how it brought you to KCAA.

A. "I began my career in early education at the age of 19 at a community college in the Bay Area, finally earning a Master's in early education administration from Bank Street College in New York City in my late 30s. I see the early education field as really more of a calling than a job.


I have worked for KCAA three different times over 37 years! With my background in early childhood leadership/day care administration, I took an open position as a center director at KCAA Wai-Kahala. As the director of a preschool you become an integral part of your community and a support for the children and families that you serve. I experienced, first hand, the true spirit of Aloha that is unique to Hawaii. After a few years, I left to be the director of a small preschool so that I could expand my skill set. From there I went to work for the Governor's Office of Children and Youth in the Preschool Open Doors program, then returned to KCAA as the Program Specialist for a few years, then on to Kama'aina Kids; first as their School Age Trainer and then ultimately Vice President, Preschool Division. Each transition offered opportunities for professional growth and responsibility. Five years later, the KCAA board sought me out and asked me to come back as president. I have now been president of KCAA for 19 years. I truly love KCAA and all that it stands for. The Board of Trustees is at the heart of KCAA's success over time. They are an incredibly talented and dedicated group of professionals who truly put children first.


Over the years, I have served as an advocate for children and specifically for center-based programs that serve all socio-economic groups serving on many state-level boards and committees. I continue to serve as the Liaison for the Childcare Business Coalition, a group of center-based preschools who work together to promote quality early education."


Q. What is your connection to Hawaii?

A. "I first moved to Hawaii with my daughter and then husband for his job. When we divorced a few years later, I had to decide if I should stay to raise my daughter on island or move back to the mainland. I made an intentional decision to stay because of both the cultural and racial diversity - which I deeply value and wanted to instill in my daughter. She grew up "local style" and we've both come to love all things Hawaii. She's now living on the mainland as an attorney, dances hula and works for Matson Shipping. She carries Hawaii and the spirit of Aloha in her heart." 


Q. What are the challenges of running a business in Hawaii?

A. "While we're a non-profit multi-site preschool, we face the same challenges that any other business faces in balancing the cost of doing business while ensuring quality of service delivery and maintaining a strong and dedicated employee base. At KCAA we also work to remain affordable; honoring our roots and our commitment to accessibility for children from all incomes. This has been particularly challenging the past few years in this tight labor market. We have had to raise tuition to maintain competitive wages in the job market!"


Q. What is something special about KCAA?

A. "The families that we get to know and who get to know each other and building long-lasting friendships. We conduct an annual parent satisfaction survey and I was really happy to read the comments of one family enrolled at Mother Rice who said they had intentionally chosen that school because they wanted the opportunity to build friendships with families from all different socio-economic groups.


We are uniquely gifted because we have such dedicated staff, many of whom have been with us for literally decades. We are also seeing third and fourth generations of families coming through the doors. There is a richness of experience that they bring and there is no substitute for the amazing feeling it gives our employees to have them come back. We recognize that new families who have just moved to Hawaii want to learn about Hawaii's culture and we support this by creating programs and activities that celebrate the local cultures. Returning families add to the richness of the experience by sharing their customs. Whether it is the joy of May Day or the excitement of Chinese New Year, it's a great time for all.


In returning to our teacher-training roots, we built a teacher training center about five years ago. It's our newest venture to ensure that our staff are properly trained and that their professional development is supported. We're a legacy institution so we are generously supported by founding families and grants. With these funds we're developing an entire line of training modules that focus on child development and the various elements of preschool curriculum."


Q. Do you have a personal or professional motto?

A.  "Take a moment. Take breath. Put yourself in their place. Everything is going to work out, just persevere." 


Q. What is your greatest success and what is the biggest lesson you've learned in your career?

A. "My greatest success is being able to remain with KCAA for almost 20 years and to have watched it grow into such a positive force with the children and families in our community. I am also tremendously proud to have worked with our incredible Board of Trustees to have earned the support of local trusts, foundations and businesses who provided $5 million in funds in 2013 to support accreditation initiatives, improve playgrounds and to build a $3.2 million technology-advanced teacher training center, the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) on KCAA's Mother Rice property in Moiliili.


The biggest lessons that I've learned are to embrace change and that you just need to persevere. There are going to be challenges and disappointments so it's a matter of finding a way over it or around it so you can continue to pursue your goals. When I get really frustrated, I think about the movie "Finding Nemo" - just keep swimming, don't give up. One of the challenges that we faced was the great recession, which really impacted us. I had to seek out additional tuition assistance so families could continue to send their children to preschool while they struggled to navigate the recession's impact on their lives."


From Makai HR President, Valerie Wang: "KCAA reached out to us to congratulate us on our launch. As we got to know them, we found that our outsourced HR services are a really great fit for their HR needs. We are thrilled to be partnering with KCAA Preschools of Hawaii and inspired to hear more about the work they do, and how they've impacted our local community and families."