Opportunity to transform early learning in Ontario

TheStar.com – Opinion – Opportunity to transform early learning in Ontario: Evidence supports Pascal’s blueprint for an integrated approach for children under 6
June 16, 2009.   Jim Grieve, Director of Education, Peel District School Board
Bill Hogarth, Director of Education, York Region District School Board

We know for certain that every dollar we invest in children before they are 6-years-old saves us up to $17 in social service costs. So why does Canada shamefully spend so little in support of its youngest and most vulnerable citizens? What will it take to change the status quo – to move from talk to action and make a difference for children, families and our communities?

The good news is we finally have an opportunity to make that difference. A new report entitled With Our Best Future in Mind by Charles Pascal, early learning adviser to Premier Dalton McGuinty, presents a clear and powerful blueprint for Ontario. The report calls for sweeping, collaborative action to place early learning firmly on the public agenda for Ontario and the rest of Canada.

With Our Best Future in Mind calls attention to the need to build on best practice and embed proven strategies uniformly toward a total transformation of our approach to early learning. The report proposes expanded Best Start Child and Family Centres and introduces early learning programs as the enhanced full-day model for 4- and 5-year-olds.

There are creative programs already operating in Ontario schools and early learning centres that are proven innovations from which all can learn.

The Peel District School Board’s Early Years Hubs and Readiness Centres are wonderful examples of such innovation. The board made the difficult but necessary decision in 2004 to self-fund these centres and locate them where they would make the greatest difference. The funding was boldly based on need – not geography.

The centres invite preschool children and their parents or caregivers to a rich early learning setting in a school to promote active learning and development. The children from these centres are more ready for school and for life. The parents learn essential skills to promote early child development and become connected in a whole new way to education. Through the powerful and personal moments taking place in these centres, the adults learn not only how to support their child, but also themselves and our whole community.

For those who cannot make it to the limited number of centres, the Peel region, along with Success By 6 Peel and some funding from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, has launched three mobile early learning centres called LION (Learning in Our Neighbourhood). These converted RVs take learning on the road and visit 15 underserved neighbourhoods every week to promote early child development.

In the York Region District School Board, 60 of its 161 elementary schools already host full-service child-care centres in partnership with a variety of not-for-profit operators. Services are coordinated by the board, ensuring effective collaboration between kindergarten teachers and early childhood educators working in the centres.

The York board’s Building Blocks for Learning program provides preschool literacy instruction at 12 locations throughout the region during the summer. The program targets preschoolers with no previous child-care experience who are about to begin kindergarten as well as English Language Learners. The program helps ease the transition from home to school by providing print-rich learning environments, parenting support and qualified staff to help children develop literacy as well as personal and social skills.

In Markham, the York board’s early-learning staff have teamed with health professionals in the field of dental hygiene, audiology, nutrition and eye care to offer basic health screening and referral of preschoolers to early intervention. The pilot program, launched last year, screened 1,200 students from 11 Markham area schools and offered many new immigrant families a first opportunity to make contact with health-care providers.

With Our Best Future in Mind confirms all the evidence about the economic and social returns that will accrue from our investment in early child development. But there is more to it when it comes to public spending. So many children show up in school well behind their peers, and it becomes harder for our dedicated teachers to deal with unresolved problems and undiagnosed learning and behaviour issues that frustrate children, parents and teachers alike. By “harder,” we also mean more costly both in terms of budget as well as the extensive human costs involved.

All of us working in this province and those watching from across Canada want Ontario to fund nothing short of a revolutionary approach to providing services for young children and their families. The time for that revolution is now.

We must ensure that an already resource-challenged environment gets the capital and operating support that is essential if we are to make this report and its recommendations come to life. The current economic downturn should be seen as a key driver of change, not an excuse to skimp on a plan that holds such promise for all who live in Ontario.

The premier is to be commended for his vision to create a more prosperous Ontario. Pascal has given the people of Ontario a call to action that is challenging but very doable; one that will yield enormous benefits for our very best future.

Ontario educators and early child development professionals are ready to do important work together to create this new early learning program. But even the most powerful vision remains little more than a “talking point” without adequate funding support. Action in early childhood is too important to be just “talk.”

 

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