Once a school troublemaker, Charles Pascal died a visionary for transforming education in Ontario

Posted on May 2, 2023 in Education History

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TheStar.com – GTA
May 1, 2023.   By Isabel Teotonio, Education Reporter

His crusading work on early learning led to the introduction of full-day kindergarten in the province.

As a young boy, Charles Pascal was a terror in the classroom, routinely sent home for causing trouble — until one teacher turned his life around.

He would go on to become a renowned educator, deputy minister and tireless champion of public education, whose greatest mark on this province was as the architect of Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program.

Pascal died in Toronto on April 24 following complications from surgery. He was 79.

Pascal’s legacy is his work as special adviser on early learning to then-premier Dalton McGuinty and his groundbreaking 2009 report “With Our Best Future in Mind.” It led to the transformation of kindergarten from being taught by a teacher over half a day, or every other day, into a full day of play-based learning that included an early childhood educator, which was a unique staffing model. He also envisioned schools as learning hubs, complete with before- and after-school care where kids get healthy snacks, and parents can access a slew of resources.

Adopting Pascal’s plan — it was introduced in 2010 and fully implemented by 2015 — made Ontario the first province with full-day programming for four- and five-year-olds. It was a game-changer for teachers, students and stressed out parents who no longer had to figure out child care.

Pascal — or Chuck as he was called by family and friends — wasn’t just passionate about education.

“He was passionate about almost everything — it was just part of his DNA,” his wife Tassie Notar told the Star, adding he’d even get worked up over a restaurant meal. “He just loved making a difference. He told me that if he had a tombstone he’d like it to say, ‘I tried.’”

Pascal was a professor, bureaucrat, executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, won numerous awards, received several honorary degrees and is a member of the Order of Canada. He also wrote opinion columns for the Star, never shy of calling out policymakers, regardless of their political stripe.

“He had an undying passion for good social policy that responded to needs, particularly in the area of education and social justice,” his best friend and former Liberal finance minister Greg Sorbara told the Star. “He fought for those things all of his life.”

It’s a key message in Pascal’s book, “Leading from the Inside Out: Hard-Earned Lessons from Education, Government and … Baseball,” where he says public education is the key to a future that’s safer, healthier, more just and prosperous for the many, not just the elite few.

“What he brought was an absolute burning desire to see this world be a better place because of the way we educate young people,” recalled journalist Steve Paikin, a longtime friend. “So much of his raison d’être was about making sure that young kids, no matter where they were from … got off to a good start in life.”

Pascal believed that if you get education right, everything else falls into place: There will be fewer people on social assistance, in prisons, in hospitals; and more people getting good jobs, paying taxes, leading healthier lives.

“That just totally animated his professional life: If we can get education right, nothing can stop us,” recalled Paikin, host of TVO’s current affairs program “The Agenda with Steve Paikin.”

But it was roles in Pascal’s personal life — as father to Blaise, Jesse and Tai — that he was most proud of, he told the Star in a 2009 interview.

“My bio is just show business if you compare it to the most important role I play in education, the role of parent,” said Pascal, adding he was most proud of what never appeared on a resumé: “activist parent” and maybe even “pushy parent.”

He could be pushy with friends too. Paikin once got off the air, after interviewing a politician, to find a series of scathing voice messages from Pascal, rebuking him for not asking tougher questions.

“There were days when that guy had no filter between what he was thinking and what he was saying,” recalled Paikin with a chuckle. “But we always knew that it came from a good place.”

Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, says Pascal was a mentor to her over the past 25 years, adding, “He was a hard-ass. Charles never minced words.” They met when she was part of what was then an ad-hoc group of concerned parents and he was at the helm of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which became an early, and vital, funder of the organization.

“He always held you to account in terms of what you were trying to do,” she told the Star. “He pushed hard. Was critical when he needed to be. He always put his money where his mouth was … and believed in the cause.”

Pascal was born in 1944 in Chicago, the second of three boys. Early on in school, he was known for being a troublemaker, often sent home for acting out. But his Grade 3 teacher let him write all of his assignments on the theme of baseball because she knew he loved the sport. In his book, he credited her with shaping and saving his life, and as an adult sent her a letter of gratitude. Her reply, “Of course I remember you, Charlie. You terrorized your second grade teacher, and my job was to set you straight. No big deal!”

Through baseball he became aware of social inequality at an early age. Having grown up on the north side of Chicago — the wealthier and mostly white part of the city — his team would play against teams from the south side, comprised mostly of Black kids who lacked uniforms and new equipment. “As a young athlete, I really saw an explicit have-not/have world,” he recalled in a 2003 Star interview.

He studied at the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship and graduated with a PhD in psychology in 1969, then moving with his first wife to Montreal to teach at McGill University. Once there, the new dad convinced the school to create a child-care centre for the children of faculty members — a first in Canadian universities.

In 1977, Pascal moved to teach at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). And in 1982, he became president of Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough and married Notar in a ceremony held on campus. While president, he met Sorbara, then minister of college and universities, and the pair hit it off, with Sorbara recommending in 1987 Pascal’s appointment as chair of the Ontario Council of Regents, the governing body for the province’s colleges.

That job brought him back to Toronto, closer to the ballpark, where he landed a gig in the Blue Jays’ press box as a stringer for the American news agency UPI. For someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, he relished the opportunity. He also coached the University of Toronto’s varsity baseball team for a dozen years.

During Bob Rae’s government, in 1991, Pascal was appointed deputy minister of the Premier’s Council on Health, Well-being and Social Justice and later held deputy ministerial posts in social services and education. He wasn’t the classic bureaucrat — he was a big advocate of social justice policies, always rooted in evidence.

Jane Bertrand, program director at the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, worked closely with Pascal when he was a deputy minister and remembers him as provocative, challenging, inspiring and articulate.

“He recognized how to influence progressive public policies and he didn’t get lost in the weeds. … He would stay with the high messages,” said Bertrand, who also worked with him as part of the team that ushered in full-day kindergarten.

In 1996, he became the first full-time executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which was founded by former Star publisher Joseph Atkinson and is committed to social and economic justice. He led the foundation for 15 years, during which time it provided OISE with an endowment to set up the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development, and was key in establishing the Ontario Child Tax benefit, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing and early learning policy.

The genesis of full-day kindergarten began with a pilot project led by the foundation, the centre, the City of Toronto and the Toronto District School Board. It explored full-day programming, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., that included a full suite of services for children and families.

It caught the attention of various premiers, including McGuinty, who in 2007 appointed Pascal as special adviser on early learning. Pascal and Kerry McCuaig, fellow in early childhood policy at the Atkinson Centre, set off across the province, consulting with parents and educators. She says parents described kindergarten as their “hell years” because of difficulties in finding child care for just half a day, or every other day, and stressed-out teachers were in tears over having to constantly switch between two cohorts of kids.

Pascal was so determined to get key stakeholders to understand what a full day of kindergarten could look like that he would play-act during meetings with senior board staff, trustees and others.

“He would act like the four-year-old, and then he would ask people to interact with him,” recalled McCuaig with a chuckle. “The men would freeze in their chairs, like ‘Please don’t ask me,’ and the women were more likely to engage. … This wasn’t an effort to be funny, although it was. It was really an effort to talk to these people who had never really concerned themselves, really, with the learning and care of very small children.”

The work of Pascal’s team culminated in the 2009 report, changing kindergarten in Ontario and providing a model that has been adopted in other provinces. And the research has already shown that kids in full-day kindergarten are much better prepared for Grade 1, when it comes to communication and socialization and general knowledge.

Pascal later returned to OISE to teach and continued advising organizations and governments. In his honour, OISE has announced the Charles Pascal Memorial Scholarship.

OISE (252 Bloor Street W.) will host a public celebration of Pascal’s life on May 2, between 4-6 p.m. in the library. Attendees are asked to register in advance.


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