Experts call Ontario’s full-day kindergarten ‘visionary.’ The Ford government is eyeing changes

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TheStar.com – Politics/Provincial Politics
Feb. 10, 2019.   By

Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program is in a class by itself.

With a full-time teacher and full-time early childhood educator working together, it provides a unique staffing model and two-year curriculum for the province’s 4- and 5-year-olds.

But now, the Ford government is eyeing potential changes, raising concerns among experts who say the program — while costly, at $1.5 billion a year — is worth the price.

“It would be extremely disruptive to change the model — disruption for education, for children, for families,” said Rachel Langford, a professor in the school of early childhood studies at Ryerson University.

The staffing, which has been in place since full-day kindergarten was rolled out almost a decade ago, has made Ontario “a leader, a visionary in this regard, and that, from our perspective, is very positive,” said Langford, who at one time was a kindergarten teacher.

Other provinces with full-day kindergarten typically use a teacher-only model.

Late last month, Education Minister Lisa Thompson launched consultations, asking unions and trustee associations about the “implications of the present two-educator model” for students, working conditions as well as “value for money” — and whether other options are available — as the government faces a deficit of up to $14.5 billion.

Last month, she and Premier Doug Ford caused an uproar after they wouldn’t commit to keeping full-day kindergarten. They later backtracked, affirming they would continue with what they referred to as “full-day learning.”

The full-day program was introduced by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty. The original report on its design had recommended teachers work a half-day, with early childhood educators (ECEs) covering the rest of the school day as well as after-hours care.

However McGuinty — in a move to please the teacher unions — opted for one full-time teacher and one full-time ECE for the school day, adding half a billion dollars annually to the cost.

Since it was implemented, critics have derided it as expensive daycare; economist Don Drummond recommended scrapping it to trim the deficit, and in 2014 former PC leader Tim Hudak proposed a teacher-only model — with smaller class sizes — to save $200 million a year.

When full-day began, there were growing pains: Teachers were used to working alone at the head of the class, and ECEs working in teams in child-care settings. Their differing education credentials and huge salary discrepancy meant some ECEs felt more like assistants than educators. (School-based ECEs can earn well below half of what top-earning teachers do.)

Over time, “the level of integration of the staff team increased,” said University of Toronto professor Janette Pelletier, a researcher of Ontario’s full-day program. “Staff members reported that they benefited professionally from working together and that families benefited from the integrated team approach.”

Team teaching has also been key to the academic, social and emotional success children have had in full-day kindergarten, added Pelletier of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study.

“The current model works,” she added. “If student success is important, then why talk about changing the model? I can speculate — perhaps student success would be negatively affected if educators no longer had the same combination of professional training and expertise.”

A teacher-only model might mean less focus on the play-based nature of the program; two early childhood educators would need to be trained in kindergarten curriculum, she added.

Pelletier also noted there is a shortage of ECEs in the system.

For teachers and early childhood educators, the strengths they each bring to the classroom are key.

Sarah Fernandes, who teaches one of five full-day kindergarten classes at Scarborough’s St. Maria Goretti Catholic School — each with the maximum 29 students — has worked with early childhood educator Anthonia Ikemeh for the past five years.

“We work well together,” said Ikemeh, adding the two bounce ideas off one another and create inquiry-based projects on topics the kids are interested in.

The two closely document everything their young students do, taking photos and creating a binder of pictures and classwork to detail their progress over the two years they are in the full-day program.

Over the years, they’ve refined and improved their program and projects. They’ve brought in bins of “loose parts” — bottle caps, paper towel rolls, buttons, clothespins, smooth beads — and put them out on shelves for children to touch, play with and use to help with counting and adding. They created a family tree on the wall with photos of students’ families, as well as their own.

Meanwhile, next door, teacher Kayla Larkey and ECE Celeste Riparip take turns instructing students, working with small groups.

Larkey, who worked as an early childhood educator before returning to university to earn her teaching degree, said, “I love it because I feel like we both bring different things to the table.”

Riparip “has a lot of experience with what’s child-appropriate and developmentally appropriate for kids in the class, and she keeps me on page to make sure everything is play-based,” Larkey said.

In turn, Larkey, who has taken professional development in areas such as special education, shares that expertise and knowledge.

“Recently we’ve noticed (students) are really into snow, so we are doing a snow inquiry,” Larkey added. “I might bring in some books from the Toronto Public Library; Celeste might prepare some activities for them.”

Recently, “we brought in some snow and they were watching it melt.” (A student put a snowball in his pocket to share with the class.)

“With both of us being here, we can work with kids one-on-one or in a smaller group,” said Riparip. “Whereas if it’s just a teacher, it’s harder to do that with 20, 25 or 30 kids. It’s a lot for one person to handle.”

Larkey points to the teacher desk in the classroom, saying it’s nice to have but it’s hardly used.

“We never sit.”

The University of Toronto’s Charles Pascal, the architect of Ontario’s full-day program, said after consultations on his report to McGuinty, “we decided to combine the specialized knowledge of kindergarten teachers about the school environment” and also thinking ahead to the transition to Grade 1.

Using ECEs only would require about 8,000 more when there is a shortage within the profession, Pascal added.

“The cost savings would not actually be huge and the major disruption to something that is working would produce chaos for several years that’s not good for kids and parents,” he said.

“It’s taken nine years to begin to smooth out the model — and now, on the back of an envelope, a hasty change that will likely inhibit the social and economic progress being made, is irresponsible.”

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics.

https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2019/02/06/experts-call-ontarios-full-day-kindergarten-visionary-the-ford-government-is-eyeing-changes.html

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