Should three-year-olds be in school all day?

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      Walk north one block from Lord Strathcona elementary school and you’re on East Hastings Street in the spillover from the 24-hour buzz at Main and Hastings. Walk east or west from the school, and it’s a swath of litter-strewn social-housing projects interspersed with revitalized million-dollar heritage homes. Lord Strathcona principal Jim Ion presides over 550 students—who were hollering on the playground at recess on April 16—in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood. Just 48 percent of area residents, in this swiftly gentrifying pocket of downtown, graduated from high school.

      Ion has a next-to-impossible task: with just three students who speak English as a first language among his three kindergarten classes, he has to pave the way for general academic success even though, as he said, some kids show up at five years of age never even having ventured out of the Downtown Eastside. School readiness? That’s a task stick-handled by the staff with a breakfast program, a lunch program, strong ties to the adjacent community centre—which offers kids programming from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. most days—and up to $80,000 a year in corporate funding to support literacy initiatives and other “extras”.

      “We see so much need all the time, I cannot imagine not having full-day kindergarten,” Ion said during an interview in his no-frills office. Most Vancouver schools offer kindergarten as a half-day program. Lord Strathcona, he told the Georgia Straight, spends about $90,000 extra per year to staff the full-day program, plus about $30,000 on the school’s half-day junior kindergarten for four-year-olds. For other support, he depends on the school’s alumni, such as regular donors Milton Wong (chair of HSBC Asset Management Canada), Brandt Louie (president and CEO of H. Y. Louie Co. Ltd., which owns London Drugs), and Shirley Wong (former UBC business professor and current Vancouver board of education member).

      “The kids are eager to learn, the teachers are eager to teach, and again and again we come up against a financial barrier. The school boards are doing everything they can. Would I call it a crisis? Maybe I would.”

      Within four years, B.C. may have full-day kindergartens for all three-, four-, and five-year-olds—not just the “needy” ones. In a four-sentence blip in the middle of the provincial throne speech on February 12, Lt.-Gov. Stephen Point announced that the government is establishing a new Early Childhood Learning Agency. The agency will report to the provincial government within a year on the “feasibility and costs” of full-day kindergarten for five-year-olds and of providing parents the option of the same for four- and three-year-olds, by 2010 and 2012, respectively. (Education Minister Shirley Bond did not return the Straight’s calls by deadline.) Is this an answer to the province’s child-care crisis? Or is this an answer to a perceived literacy crisis? Or both?

      You’d think Ion would be a strong advocate for the provincial Liberals’ new early childhood education plans, but he’s not. Also hesitant are Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation; Ken Denike, the longest-serving Vancouver school board trustee; and Toni Hoyland, the president of the Early Childhood Educators of B.C. Except for Denike, the experts think the money—which will undoubtedly be substantial—would be better spent elsewhere.

      For example, Ion, who has taught all over Vancouver, thinks that most kids in the city show up for kindergarten well-prepared. He said that at his last school, Queen Elizabeth elementary, near UBC, the kids arrived with preschool experience, had travelled, and were generally ready for a formal school environment. What’s really needed, Ion said, is a universally accessible child-care program so kids learn basic skills before school, and a more substantial investment in primary schooling.

      “To say that we’re going to make kindergarten universally accessible for our three- and four-year-olds but we’re not going to do anything with our kindergarten-to-Grade-3s flabbergasts me,” Ion said. “I’m sure they have experts giving them advice, but when you’re actually in a school, seeing the kids on a daily basis, you know the money might be better spent elsewhere.”

      If each of the approximately 1,000 elementary schools in the province added one classroom of three-year-olds, one of four-year-olds, and an additional half-day for five-year-olds, with the average teacher salary (including benefits) at about $60,000, the annual cost of this change would be $1.5 billion.

      The president of the Early Childhood Educators of B.C. said she doesn’t know what the Ministry of Education is up to. Toni Hoyland couldn’t comprehend the thinking when the government broke childcare and early learning into separate ministries last year. Early learning, she said, has care at the centre of it.

      “What do they think early learning is?” she asked the Straight on the phone from the Kootenays. “Children being exposed to really boring worksheets that say, ”˜This is the letter A’?”¦No. Early learning is setting up a play grocery store and children ”˜write’ their shopping lists. But it’s scribble writing. They’re learning about the meaning of text. It’s not rote memorization of individual letters.”

      Hoyland is afraid the B.C. government has bought into the academization of preschoolers. It’s a tactic, she said, that is age-inappropriate but is fuelled by some parents so fearful for their children’s future that the pressure to read by the end of kindergarten has become the standard. Who will teach these classes for three- and four-year-olds, she wonders. Will it be teachers or early childhood educators? She doesn’t know, because her agency hasn’t heard from the Early Childhood Learning Agency that was announced in the throne speech.

      “We are offering the education system our expertise and we expect to be consulted,” she said. “We are the experts.” Hoyland has mixed feelings about the proposal. On the one hand, the prospect of a publicly funded system of early learning is exciting. It will likely come with bigger paycheques for ECE-certified workers and give all B.C. kids the benefit of a professional, appropriate environment. On the other hand, the bigger pay and massive size of the project threaten to pull workers out of their community-based work, exacerbating a staffing crisis even further.

      To Denike, the proposal is childcare, not education in the traditional sense, especially for the three-year-olds. When the school boards were reconfigured a year ago, he said, they were given early learning as part of their mandate. So far in Vancouver schools, that’s meant two Strong Start Centres, which target kids with an at-home parent. Now, the next step is an expanded kindergarten program.

      “It’s quite an organizational shift. It’s going to require a real cultural shift as well,” he told the Straight. “I think it [the crisis] is as much in childcare as education.”¦The thing that jumps out at you is the many agencies and the really fractured kind of delivery of child-care programs. I’m rather interested in using the school system in order to deliver those programs.” Yes, adding two-and-a-half years onto school is an aggressive move, Denike admitted, but in the province’s pursuit of better literacy, new is good. He knows that many Vancouver kids show up at kindergarten with little English and that childcare in schools and in the community is a broken front, and he welcomes any attempt to coordinate it.

      BCTF president Irene Lanzinger was momentarily silent on the phone. The Straight had just asked her what she thought of the part of the throne speech that described full-day classes for three- and four-year-olds. The BCTF supports the plan for five-year-olds, in theory, so long as the province kicks in enough money to cover it without compromising other budgets. But toddlers in school?

      “I suppose we could take every three-year-old in the province and stick them in a classroom and try to teach them to read, and a whole bunch of kids would read at three who don’t read at three now. Is that a good thing?” she asked. Kindergarten, she said, is for play, not academics. She is also troubled by the argument that kids are not ready for school when they arrive at five. “If a child is well-fed, has had good housing, has had good support from an adult who cares for them, they’ll be ready.”¦We could have that [for all students] by having high-quality, accessible daycare staffed by qualified people who are well-paid. That’s what we’re missing in this province. It’s good daycare.”

      B.C. certainly isn’t a leader in either childcare or universal full-day kindergarten. UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership has reported that between 2001 and 2007, the province reduced funding for childcare by 33 percent—while the booming economy grew by 388 percent over the same period. According to HELP, B.C. has enough licensed child-care spaces for just 12 percent of the province’s children. Lanzinger credits child-care programs with some of the same benefits kindergarten offers: kids learn language, how to follow instructions, and independence from their parents, and are allowed space for creative play.

      Full-day kindergarten, internationally promoted as a solution to low literacy rates, is offered in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario and has swept through the United States recently as well. Under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, the number of states requiring full-day has grown to nine, and an additional 28 states offer incentives to schools to provide the extra hours. In West Vancouver and Seattle, affluent parents demanded it and are paying out of their own pockets for the privilege.

      But does it work? There’s an industry in studying “full-day K”, as it’s dubbed, especially in the U.S. Most research comes to the conclusion that, yes, it can help understimulated children transition well into a formal learning environment but the initial advantage subsides by about Grade 4. In Canada, University of Alberta researcher Jose da Costa and consultant Susan Bell compared two inner-city schools in 2000, one with full-day kindergarten and one without. In their study, Full Day Kindergarten at an Inner City Elementary School: Perceived and Actual Effects, they found the full-day students outdid their half-day peers in readiness to read.

      As Lanzinger pointed out, however, this province does not have a problem graduating students with high literacy levels. There’s no crisis in education, she said, that would justify a universal full-day kindergarten experience for three- and four-year-olds.

      Indeed, in 2006, B.C.’s 15-year-olds took international reading tests administered to students in 16 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Canada’s teens were bested only by those in Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong—and not by much.

      The American model of more school and more testing, Lanzinger said, clearly isn’t a route to higher success than Canada already enjoys.

      “Why are we not imitating Finland?” she asked, noting that country lets kids be kids, doesn’t teach reading until seven, and is consistently ranked among the top school achievers in the world. “They have a high, high degree of social programs.”¦When families struggle to have housing and feed their children, their children are going to come to school with some disadvantages.”

      On his first day in kindergarten, Ion said, he remembers himself crying.

      Before then, he’d never left his mom or grandmother’s side. Just like his students at Lord Strathcona, he could have used a better transition. But even in Vancouver’s most challenging neighbourhood, Ion said, he wouldn’t jump at the chance to institute a junior-junior kindergarten for three-year-olds; he would support expanded childcare.

      “Without question, kids who have had the chance to go to a formal setting, and I’d call daycare a formal setting, are more ready for school. I mean, they follow instructions, they follow rules, they take in and process information.”

      So is Bond’s proposal school or is it veiled childcare? To the thousands of children on child-care waiting lists in B.C., and the likely many more whose parent(s) can’t afford it, that question doesn’t really matter. This is the first time our provincial government has created something that resembles universal, accessible childcare—even if, in Bond’s mind, it’s probably really early learning.