Parents upset junior kindergarten is on school board’s chopping block

By Nick Greenfield

Concerned educators and parents say the future of their children’s education is in limbo.

The Ontario Ministry of Education released its funding model for the next three years on March 25.

Despite the budget’s promise for funds to support school boards with existing junior kindergarten programs, some educators fear the junior kindergarten program in Centretown may be on the chopping block.

Dean Berry, an educational consultant with the former Carleton Board of Education, says junior kindergarten is a perfect target because it is easy to cut and people are unaware of how important it is to children in Centretown.

The Ministry of Education says all students are important. Its proposed budget will base funding on student needs rather than the local community’s wealth. The ministry will replace the currently complex system of grants with a more straightforward, easier to administer system.

Education funding in Ontario will remain stable at $13 billion over the next three years, but money in the classroom will increase from 61 per cent to 65 per cent of total education spending.

School boards across Ontario are now faced with the task of deciding whether to spend this money on a junior kindergarten program.

Starting this fall, junior kindergarten programs will receive $230 million. However, if a school board chooses to cut a junior kindergarten program, it will receive part of the ministry’s $102-million Early Learning Grant.

The ministry says such student-focused funding will be more responsive to the needs of students throughout the province.

Berry is not so sure. A former teacher of 30 years, she says junior kindergarten is vital to the development of children, especially those in Centretown.

Berry says because English is not always spoken in Centretown homes, the introduction of basic literacy activities is essential. Compounding the problem, Berry says, is that working class families often can’t afford the luxury of bedtime stories and nursery rhymes.

“Contrary to what people say, junior kindergarten teaches basic literacy and numeracy skills,” says Berry. “If you cut it, you’ll have a lot more problems in kindergarten and the upper years, right into high school. It’s a domino effect.”

Berry says learning disabilities are often identified in the early years at school. As a result, cutting junior kindergarten may have a lasting effect on a child’s social development.

“Ultimately, society pays for it,” she says. “They are the future high school dropouts, and let’s face it, the compensatory programs for them cost more in the long run.”

The shadow looming over junior kindergarten has not gone unnoticed by Centretown parents or educators.

Barry Pratt, the principal of Elgin Street Public School, says the lack of specific information on the future of junior kindergarten has forced him to play the “middle man” with parents.

“I’m the one who’s supposed to have the answers . . . and I don’t,” says Pratt. “It’s very frustrating because it puts everything on hold.”

Even though junior kindergarten is currently a priority with educators, the Elgin Street Public School council has discussed the program’s future for the past two years.

Joan Spice, co-chair of the council, says the group is strongly in favor of keeping junior kindergarten in Centretown. Like Berry, she says the council realizes the importance of providing lower-income and immigrant children with an extra year of learning English.

Spice says time constraints have hindered evaluations of junior kindergarten programs, and it’s unrealistic for the province to expect a decision so quickly.

“How can you make this decision in two months?” Spice asks. “If you make bad decisions now, it will affect schools for 10 or 20 years.”