Rainbow Schools: 50 Years of Preschool Excellence

rainbow school building

by Stephanie Lopes

1970 to 1971: A Vision for Early Childhood Education

“The early 1970s were a tumultuous time in the United States. Marginalized people were fighting for equality, and the misinformation surrounding the Vietnam War shattered confidence in a wide variety of social institutions, including schools. But I have always believed that in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” Diana Bonsignore, Founder of Rainbow Schools, recollects.

“I had been teaching for five years, and in 1970 I began working on my master’s degree in Educational Foundations at the University of Hawaii. Wanting to make a difference in my chosen vocation, I began searching for an instructional model that would better meet the diverse needs of the children I encountered in my classroom,” continues Diana.

“With the support of my UH advisor and mentor Dr. Royal Fruehling (who is still today on the Rainbow Schools Board of Directors), I began my master’s project to open a primary school based on the British Infant School model with multi-age groupings of children ages five to seven in child-centered, open classrooms.”

“I had no problem developing the school vision and curriculum, nor did we have any difficulty finding students or teachers. But soon four insurmountable obstacles emerged: finding a building; getting the building zoned appropriately to be a school; making the repairs to get the building up to code; and becoming licensed with the Department of Education and the Department of Human Services,” says Diana. “It was humbling to realize I was completely ill-equipped to take on the practicalities of a project this size by myself.”

1972: Rainbow Schools Opening

“It was community support that saw us through,” Diana fondly remembers. “A neighbor, Steven Albert, suggested an abandoned church in Kahuku to house the school. Once we secured the rent-free lease, Steve headed the volunteer crew that brought the building to code.”

“Merchants all over the island donated materials. Friends and friends-of-friends, along with potential parents and other community members, arrived daily to offer their services and equipment. A donation of $300 covered truck rentals, licensing fees, plus phone and utility expenses.”

On October 22, 1972, the opening day of Rainbow Schools in Kahuku began with a lively celebration honoring the efforts of the entire community who had brought the school from a dream to a reality. It was also a modest start with less than fifteen students and three staff: Ms. Bonsignore, a secretary, and Steve Albert.

The school’s philosophy centered around the idea that learning should be a joyful process that enables a child to build a strong feeling of self-worth as well as to cope more effectively with the world – a philosophy that remains relevant fifty years later.

To achieve the school’s vision, the curriculum at the school was – and continues to be – rich in discovery and exploration through the use of learning centers, allowing children to have free choices and learn through experimentation. Teachers purposefully arrange the learning centers into many developmentally appropriate interest areas that also expose students to letters, shapes, numbers, and math concepts: art, blocks, cooking, computers, home living, library, listening center, carpentry, music and movement, science, the outdoors, sand and water, table games, and more.

1973: Kahuku Preschool

“We started mostly as an elementary school, but parents kept asking if we would take their preschool age children,” remembers Steve, who became the Director of Rainbow Schools in 1973. “We added older preschool children ages three to four, and the need for a preschool found us. Starting in the early 1980s, we started focusing primarily on preschool.”

In 1974, the school’s lease-free building was converted to serve kupuna in Kahuku. Around the same time, the minister of the new Kahuku United Methodist Church, David Kim, asked Rainbow School to open at its location, where the secular Kahuku preschool serving around 65 children from 2 to 5 years old still operates today.

Rainbow School holds its opening day celebration and founders Steven Albert and Diana Bonsignore
Left: Rainbow School holds its opening day celebration October 22, 1972. In the background is the recently closed Kahuku Sugar Mill. Right: Rainbow School Founders Steven Albert and Diana Bonsignore.

1986: First Preschool Accredited in Hawaii

In 1986, Rainbow Schools made Hawaii history by becoming the first nationally accredited preschool in the state. Because of its excellent educational program that safely serves young children with fully licensed staff, all Rainbow Schools’ locations were and continue to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA).

1989: Wahiawa Preschool

In 1989, David Kim, the minister from Kahuku, moved to the Olive Methodist Church in Wahiawa, and although Rainbows Schools is not associated with any religious denomination, he asked Rainbow Schools to take over the preschool on that church’s property. The Wahiawa location now serves around 49 children from 2 to 5 years old.

1991: Kaneohe Preschool

In 1991, Minister David Kim moved again to Parker United Methodist Church in Kaneohe, asking Rainbow Schools to establish a location on the church grounds. “David Kim knew the needs of the community, and we filled it for him,” explains Steve. The Kaneohe Rainbow Schools location now cares for around 120 children from ages 2 to 5 years old.

1995: Mililani Preschool

“Things came to us because of our good reputation and the good things we did for the community,” says Steve. In 1995, the preschool on the grounds of the Christ Lutheran Church in Mililani was closing due to the inability to find a director and collect tuition.

“One of the Rainbow Schools teachers went up and talked to that pastor, and then Rainbow Schools opened in that location in the heart of Mililani Town,” remembers Steve. The Mililani preschool now serves around 60 children ranging in age from 3 to 5 years old.

1996: Honolulu Preschool

In 1996, the Prince Jonah Kuhio Federal Building at the corner of Punchbowl Street and Ala Moana Boulevard in Honolulu was searching for a preschool to serve federal employees and the general public.

Rainbow Schools expressed interest in the project, and shortly after federal officials toured the Rainbow Schools’ campuses, Rainbow Schools was given the opportunity to establish a preschool in the federal building. The Honolulu preschool location now serves 75 students ages 3 months through 5 years old.

1972 to 2022: 50 Years of Rainbow Schools ‘Ohana

While establishing Rainbow Schools “hasn’t always been bubbles and lights, we have learned from failures, using these setbacks to continue to make Rainbow Schools really special,” says Steve.

In addition to being the first accredited preschool in the state, Rainbow Schools has had exceptional staff, some who have developed along Rainbow School’s career ladder and been with the school for decades.

“The culture of the school has been ‘ohana from the very beginning,” says Diana, “and our family includes staff, parents, and children. Mutual respect and trust are our guiding values.”

“The longevity of our staff is unique. We have people who have been serving children at Rainbow Schools for 20, 30 – even 40 years,” says Steve.

The current Executive Director, Cindy Barley, who assumed the role in 2012, started at Rainbow Schools in 1991 as an aide at the Kaneohe school. She then moved along the career ladder to become a teacher at the Kaneohe school, a head teacher at the Kahuku school, a teacher-director of the Wahiawa school, center director of the Honolulu school, and then the executive director of all Rainbow Schools.

“I decided to dedicate my career to Rainbow Schools because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of the children we cared for.  Rainbow Schools also puts family first; whether it’s the children’s family or your own, family is at the core of what we do,” explains Cindy. 

Throughout the years, Rainbow Schools has continued to implement programs to be able to serve families and children from a variety of backgrounds and with differing needs. Through grants, scholarships, and other tuition funding sources, Rainbow Schools is able to serve students from low-income backgrounds.

The school also has a unique USDA food program, where all students can have a healthy, child-friendly breakfast, lunch, and snack – at no additional cost to the family. “We introduce food to children that they never had,” explains Steve. “Some students have come to me and said, ‘I love cucumbers because Rainbow Schools gave me cucumbers.’”

The vision for Rainbow Schools in 1972 was to establish a school with an educational model that would meet the diverse needs of young children. Fifty years later with five preschools, the great-grandchildren of Rainbow Schools graduates now attend the school, enjoying learning through individualized instruction in an atmosphere of positive support.

“Rainbow Schools have endured many things as businesses typically do. However, surviving this pandemic and all of its uncertainties have certainly put things into perspective with regard to the future,” concludes Cindy.

“One of our core values is that we do what we do for the children. Children have always been the focus of our work,” Cindy continues. “What is just as important is taking care of our employees as well. Focusing on continuing our plans for more professional development, better compensation packages, and other health and safety benefits such as self-care programs are important facets of our work that allow us to be our best when taking care of the children.”

staff renovating a classroom
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