You’ve seen them trundling off to school with all the excitement only one newly arriving into the education system can generate, their backpacks almost the same size as their tiny selves. They are the third wave of four- and five-year-olds beginning full-day kindergarten in Ontario.
Educators and experts in early childhood education have hailed the program, which first began in the 2010-11 school year, and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has been lauded for taking the bold step of continuing to roll out this initiative even while having to grapple with a $15-billion deficit.
McGuinty has positioned the current contract dispute with teachers unions in the province as putting “a pause” on teachers’ wages and benefits in order to be able to afford to continue to roll out the $1.5-billion program expected to have a five-year phase-in schedule across the province.
What we have now is half the population of young children of eligible age for kindergarten already enrolled. This school year, enrollment is expected to be 122,000 in 1,700 schools, an increase from the previous 800 sites and the 50,000 who were enrolled in 2011-12.
Clearly, acceptance of the program so far is proving to be a success. Not least because parents are desperate for the kind of support that will allow them affordable alternatives for supervision and care of their children during working hours. In presenting the initiative, McGuinty boasted that full-day kindergarten would save each family some $6,500 per child annually in childcare expenses.
Of course, this program is not without its critics. Most vocal so far have been the daycare centres that will lose funding and support as provincial funding priorities shift from infants and preschoolers toward all-day kindergarten.
During the last Toronto City Council budget debate, for example, cutting 2,000 daycare spaces was up for consideration in part because of uncertainty about provincial funding. As such, people in the daycare sector complain that McGuinty has not thought this initiative all the way through and are overlooking the needs of the babies to three-year-olds. We wait to see how the government will respond to this.
What is significant is the outcome, especially for children from low-income and socially disadvantaged families who now have the option to be in a structured learning and socializing environment throughout the day, that’s expected to show benefits both in more children completing education to grade 12 and in moving beyond to tertiary education.
Parents of African-Canadian children want to be sure, however, that while the benefits are available to equalize education outcomes through the accessibility to full-day kindergarten, there are also safeguards in place to ensure that placing their children in these programs will not make them vulnerable sooner to the kind of tacit lowered expectations that can often plague the relationship between such children on the one hand and teaching professionals and the school system on the other.
We know that the Africentric Alternative School at Keele and Sheppard has shown promising results for its students, the direct result of the level of commitment from the school’s educators and support staff. And, as one of the schools that this year will begin providing full-day kindergarten, we fully expect that any child enrolled there in this early childhood education program will be given a firm foundation on which to build academic success.
What African-Canadian parents with young children in other schools offering full-day programs want to be assured of is that the same level of commitment and respect will be a part of this new initiative. If the program will not include culture specific curriculum – and it is unlikely that it will, outside of Black History Month – what has to be ensured is that these young children, and by that we mean especially young boys, will not be streamed into social, occupational and economic disenfranchisement.
It does not take long for these youngsters to get the message that expectations are different for them, particularly if they are rambunctious.
For even with the best of intentions without that vigorous commitment to fair and equitable treatment, the risk of alienation for Black students within our current education system will remain a matter of concern.
Full-day kindergarten promises better long-term student outcomes; we want to be sure that promise holds true for every child as it is intended.