After-school care in Vancouver hits crisis point

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School’s out, and it’s a perfect Vancouver summer evening, but the eight parents around the coffee table at the Macqueens’ East Vancouver home are having a crisis meeting. None has been able to obtain after-school care for their children through Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House, the out-of-school provider for Lord Selkirk elementary. With just two months to go before school starts again, the parents talk for the first time about starting their own program.

Last year, the Macqueens hired two au pairs through Aupair World, an on-line company, to get them through the school year. The Dabiris brought grandparents over from Hungary. As the summer begins, Jade Lew feels she’s being forced to choose between restarting her career and her desire to put her children in French immersion.

Physiotherapist Ronda Field had to give up her existing employment: “I’ve worked full-time my whole life. I had to take a part-time job to allow my child to go to kindergarten.” She enrolled her child at Selkirk after failing to obtain after-school care at nearby Tyee elementary. “It’s a problem for working parents everywhere.”

Over at Kitsilano’s Henry Hudson, unexpected demand at the end of June and complex prioritizing of applicants forced the out-of-school care program to put more than a dozen students who were already in the program on a provisional waiting list for this fall.

At Nootka elementary, Penny Seto can’t get care through Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House. Teacher Wendy Oberlander put her five-year-old in private school mainly because she couldn’t find the after-school care she needed to put her son in Charles Dickens.

Yet with “half-day” kindergarten clocking in at less than three hours a day, after-school care is a necessity for working families. At least Seto has flexible work as the owner of a children’s-wear company; she can occasionally take her son with her to the local manufacturing facility.

Astrid Visscher, administrator of the Spare Time Child Care Society, which provides care in four Vancouver schools, told the Georgia Straight that there are 70 children on her waiting lists, even though “the fees that we have to charge parents are often prohibitive”¦and subsidies are hard to access.”

Cedar Cottage executive director Donna Chang described the situation as “horrid”. “Parents can’t get child-care spaces, and even if they can they’re shocked at the cost.” For kindergarten students at Cedar Cottage, the fee is $475 per month for, essentially, afternoon care.

This unpleasant surprise awaits parents of preschoolers who thought they’d already survived the daycare-availability crisis. Many politicians and bureaucrats with the power to address the problem show a surprising lack of awareness of the issue. Some Vancouver school board trustees and staff incorrectly blame the provincial government for forbidding the use of classrooms for out-of-school care. Even Minister of Education Shirley Bond, a former Prince George school trustee, says she was unaware that in 2001 the B.C. Liberals killed a nascent program that would have provided universal, $7-a-day before- and after-school care by 2004.

Defining the precise scope of the problem is also difficult. Agencies that provide out-of-school care share information on waiting lists only informally. Pam Best of the Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre couldn’t provide any overview numbers for demand or usage. “I don’t think there’s any coordination whatsoever. That begs a system. But there isn’t one.”

The provincial government, which slashed funding to Westcoast Child Care last year, didn’t have any ready figures either. However, according to a 2006 survey, “Early Childhood Education in Canada”, in 2005 there were about 342,000 children aged six to 12 in B.C. and 223,200 children with mothers in the paid labour force—but just 25,183 of those children were in licensed out-of-school care and another 14,228 were in regulated family care.

Given the morass of jurisdictional challenges—a crazy quilt of community-based agencies providing the service is beholden to three provincial ministries as well as civic agencies and school boards—problems and solutions vary from place to place.

In Vancouver, one critical issue is the school board’s refusal to allow vacant classrooms to be used for before- and after-school care. Chang says Cedar Cottage could staff additional care at the school, but the school board won’t let them use vacant classrooms or even an available StrongStart early learning facility. At Henry Hudson, the care society’s executive director, Pat Mahoney, says they also could deal with the demand if they had more space.

Vancouver school board superintendent Chris Kelly blames the problem on a variety of circumstances. There’s pressure from the provincial government to efficiently utilize space and eliminate schools’ excess capacity, which the board recently pegged at about 10,000 seats.

And there’s the province’s refusal to fund seismic upgrading except to meet regular school needs. The VSB’s own facilities-review process, which addresses these issues, runs exceedingly slow.

The main impediment, however, is VSB policy FNC*-R-2, which states that because it is difficult to accurately assess future class space needs in Vancouver schools, “it is inappropriate to use classroom space in Vancouver schools for child-care programs.”

VSB facilities manager Mark Dale says the provincial government defines what it considers to be classroom space. Dale told the Macqueens in an e-mail that “classrooms as designated and maintained by the Ministry cannot be used for childcare programs within the Vancouver School District”. Perhaps such language is the reason many have believed the district’s hands are tied.

Except, of course, when they aren’t. At Lord Selkirk, a spike in enrollment due to a new French-immersion program a couple of years ago resulted in a one-year exemption that allowed the use of a vacant classroom for after-school care.

Kelly admits to the limitations of bureaucracy. “It’s kind of an unsatisfactory response,” he says. “We may be doing our best, but we may also be creatures of our own conventional thinking.”

Many B.C. school districts welcome before- and after-school programs into their classrooms. Earlier this year, on behalf of parents in need of help, North Vancouver provided a classroom and put out a request for proposals soliciting an operator for an after-school program. Victoria even rents surplus classes to daycares. Why? “It’s as simple,” says Victoria superintendent John Gaiptman, “as listening to what the public is asking for.”

When Ronda Field spoke at the last school trustees meeting before the summer break, she got some sympathy and an undertaking from some that a committee might look at the issue in the fall, but that didn’t solve her problem.

COPE trustee Allen Blakey favours changing the VSB policy to make classrooms available for after-school care on a year-to-year basis, but he believes that most trustees “don’t see it as a priority”. Vision trustee Sharon Gregson, who is also the director of child and family development at Collingwood Neighbourhood House and speaks on behalf of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C., also wants a change in policy. However, she says “there’s a lot of ”˜not quite sure what to do’ about school-age care” and many trustees believe “it isn’t a school-board issue”.

None of the majority NPA trustees responded to requests to discuss the issue.

It’s against this backdrop that the provincial government announced last spring that the provincial Early Childhood Learning Agency will study the feasibility of offering full-day kindergarten across the province and optional kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds. The government may implement full-day K in public schools as early as 2009, and it wants school districts to plan to have space for this.

For Supt. Kelly and the VSB, it’s a startling reversal. “Up until a couple of weeks ago, it was the determination of this government to cause districts to get rid of empty space,” he told the Straight earlier this summer.

Among some early learning academics, school officials, and child-care advocates and providers, there’s a little hope that the provincial initiative might lead to something helpful, but it’s tempered by past experience, where important advances have been reversed.

There was much media attention when the federal Conservatives scrapped the previous federal Liberal government’s child-care strategy. But there was almost none when, in 2001, newly elected MLA Shirley Bond and the B.C. Liberals scrapped a comprehensive plan for childcare partly spearheaded by an up-and-coming Victoria school trustee named Carole James. During the election campaign, the B.C. Liberal child-care critic promised the party would continue to implement part of the plan—the nascent $7-a-day universal out-of-school care program ($14 for half-day kindergarten students)—but the party reneged after it was elected.

Critics note that Canada is far behind other industrialized countries in child-care policy: it finished 30th among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2004 ranking of early-learning spending by its 30 member countries. That study found that just 20 percent of eligible Canadian children were in licensed group programs. In June, the Canadian Labour Congress put B.C. 10th out of the 10 provinces in a ranking of child-care performance.

Even the government’s own consultation paper on its early-learning initiative, “Expanding Early Learning in British Columbia For Children Aged 3-5”, makes it very clear that B.C. is far behind many European countries. The paper actually notes that B.C. is behind every province except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, and it even trails such U.S. states as Oklahoma. It also emphasizes the extremely low cost to families of early-childhood education and care in western European countries, and notes that such public investment can reduce other social spending and boost the economy.

The province does provide substantial capital funding for school-age childcare, including capital funding up to $50,000 per room to convert existing school space. But operating funding is just $1.40 per child per day for most children in care for four hours or less, and $5.48 per child per day for more than four hours of after-kindergarten care.

However, Bond, who also serves as deputy premier, doesn’t stray far from the government’s “best place on Earth” rhetoric. Is B.C. behind? “I can only speak to the record we’ve had since 2001,” she told the Straight. “We’ve clearly been a leader across the country in early-childhood education,” she says. “This is the first government in the country that had a designated minister for early learning.” (Minister of State for Child Care Linda Reid was not available for an interview before this story’s deadline.)

When asked why the B.C. Liberals killed the out-of-school care plan, known as the Funding Assistance Program, Bond says she was not aware of it and wondered if it was a federal initiative.

Although some of those involved in childcare are cautiously hopeful, they are also apprehensive about the provincial government’s focus on the language of academic achievement. Childcare advocate Best says she was once told by someone in the Ministry of Education that if they wanted support for childcare, they should call it early learning.

In some quarters, childcare equals babysitting, and as such is an abrogation of a family’s obligations to its children. The language surrounding childcare has also changed in the past decade as governments in Canada and elsewhere emphasize the value of “investing in children”.

Whatever words you might use, the need to break down the often-artificial separation between the agencies that deliver childcare and education is obvious. The benefits of high-quality group care for young children to their social and intellectual development is beyond dispute. Education is not something that begins at 9 a.m. on September 2 for five-year-olds. “We know too much to make that separation,” Supt. Kelly says.

Although the provincial government’s consultation paper avoids calling its objectives childcare, it uses language that emphasizes a continuum of care, play, and learning that should comfort early-childhood educators. “We don’t see them as separate,” Bond says.

Finding broadly acceptable language to describe our social objectives hardly addresses the problems faced by agencies simply trying to deliver care, although the challenges can seem equally arbitrary. Policy FNC*-R-2 is just one instance. Schools are permitted to have, say, 20 kids in a schoolroom at 2:59 p.m., but at 3:01, when those kids are in “childcare”, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority requires that the facility have additional sinks and toilets.

But the biggest challenge with all the jurisdictional overlap is agreeing on who will put up the money. Kelly says that as a society we have the resources we need to provide the childcare that parents require. “Practically, the school district doesn’t have the wherewithal to do it on our own.”

Neither, according to Bond, does the province. She repeatedly emphasized that the government wants its early-learning initiatives to be community-based, and she points to examples where school districts and other local agencies have to come together, organizationally and financially, to innovate. “Schools are public assets and should be used in partnership with the community.” She says other agencies need to bring money to the table. “It is not simply the provincial government.”

For school boards, spending is rising, and the cost of additional initiatives is a huge issue. Trustee Blakey is skeptical about the province’s ability to follow through on its commitments. “Their rhetoric and their funding have always been in contradiction,” he says, adding that the Ministry of Education regularly expects school districts to run programs “off the side of a desk”.

Bond disputes any contention that the province is ungenerous or unwilling to support innovative use of schools, particularly where the VSB is concerned. But when it comes to childcare, many advocates argue convincingly that the province has been a creature of the federal government and that its spending rises and falls in lock step with federal funding designated for childcare. And as long as the Conservatives are in power, the feds are a lost cause as far as improved child-care funding is concerned.

Some provinces, such as Manitoba, have chosen to act without significant federal support. Quebec, because of strong provincial political will, has a system that many Canadian parents envy. In B.C., despite the past disappointment and beneath all the politically charged language choices like education versus care, family versus community responsibility, and universality versus choice, there is some guarded optimism about the province’s early-learning initiative. “We do need to better serve families who need different options, and I hope this is a step in the right direction,” Bond says.

None of this helps the parents at Lord Selkirk or Henry Hudson. Too many of them need childcare right now in order to keep their jobs. As the first day of school approaches, Cedar Cottage’s appeals to licensing authorities added five spots to its Selkirk after-school care program. Jade Lew got the care she needed. Ronda Field did too, but only after she took that part-time job. The Macqueens and Dabiris got nothing. Robin Macqueen will work a split shift as chair of Langara College’s physics and astronomy department. The Dabiris have again bought plane tickets for their child’s grandparents. There are still 55 children on Cedar Cottage’s Selkirk program waiting list.

Henry Hudson managed to accommodate its children by moving many to part-time care, but some parents still don’t have the care they’d like, and the waiting list of new applicants stands at 45, with 13 seeking kinder care.

Then there are the many uncounted parents who have given up trying to find formal care because they’re too busy simply getting by from day to day. Cost-sharing and funding semantics don’t mean anything to them. They’ve simply stopped waiting for politicians to deliver the help they need.

Charles Campbell’s daughter is enrolled at Lord Selkirk elementary and Cedar Cottage’s out-of-school care program.

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