The magic of kindergarten

Still dreaming of the day when we have full-day K

Susan Flanagan susan@48degrees.ca
Published on January 24, 2012

“What’s so magical about kindergarten?” Education Minister Clyde Jackman asked me as he leaned back in his leather armchair.  It’s a good question, and I’ve thought a lot about it in the past few days. Kindergarten is where formal learning begins. It’s a turning point in young lives. Most people have vivid memories of kindergarten.

For many, it’s the first time they’ll learn things from someone outside their own family.

“Our focus is on one to three years right now,” said Jackman, a father of five, when I met him to discuss when this province might get around to introducing full-day kindergarten.

While research referenced on the government’s own website (Hough and Bryde 1996) shows that students in full-day kindergarten outperform students in half-day kindergarten in language arts, mathematics and norm-referenced achievement tests; and that parents and teachers have higher overall satisfaction with it, this province is not quite ready to jump on the full-day K bandwagon.

“I can say it’s not something we’ve absolutely ruled out,” Jackman said in an interview with CBC Radio.

He then explained why he decided to put all of last year’s early childhood education dollars into developing programming for children from birth to three years.

“More learning occurs from 0-3 years than at any other point in life. … If I had a choice between investing in full-day kindergarten or 0-3, (0-3) is where my money would go.”

Where the money is spent

Now, let’s look at exactly where the $4.8 million from Tom Marshall will go.

The breakdown provided is pretty vague. All I know for certain is that $100,000 has been been awarded to WaterWerks Communications Inc. of St. John’s “to produce a multi-media public education campaign to highlight the important connection between purposeful, play-based activities and early childhood learning.”

Translation: WaterWerks will develop a website, brochures, TV, radio and print campaigns to educate the public on the provincial government’s Early Childhood Learning Strategy, which will encourage parents, among other things, to read to and play with their children.

I also know a large chunk of the cash will go to developing and distributing resource kits to parents of preschoolers when they visit the public health nurse for shots.

The minister’s trusty director of communications showed me several of these kits while the three of us sat around a table in the minister’s office.

One contained a wash cloth/toy to encourage play at bath time; another contained a crib toy, and all contained books.

These are all good things. It was the amount of paper I take issue with. I suspect a good portion of the sheets of paper and glossy brochures will find their way to the recycling bin unread.

Classroom vs. campaign

I don’t agree that brochures and an educational campaign are the way to change behaviours in less-than-ideal family settings. Nothing against the efforts of those involved, but I just can’t imagine a pamphlet program rivalling the impact of personal contact with a trained teacher in a classroom setting.

The minister heard me out in a gentlemanly manner and the two of us agreed to disagree on certain issues.

He said if just one of these pieces of paper makes a positive impression on a parent that leads to encouraging learning in their child, then the dozen pieces of paper are worth it.

However, I believe that those parents who most need to be educated about the importance of play-based learning and the positive effects of reading books on literacy will not be the ones to read these brochures. I believe these parents would benefit greater by being able to send their children to a full-day kindergarten.

Picture a young mother just home from work, trying to make supper and deal with her children. In between loads of laundry and feeding a baby and making lunches and helping with homework, do you think she’s going to sit down and read a brochure on the importance of nursery rhymes? Do you think that mother would rather have a bag of brochures from the public health nurse or have the provincial government revamp its education system so her next child can enjoy a full-day of effective, play-based learning?

Surprise Baby is due to enter kindergarten in September. So far I have been presented with 20 pieces of paper and brochures by a public health nurse at his preschool check and 16 sheets of paper and brochures at the KinderStart meeting at his school. I’m an obsessive reader who loves snail mail and is extremely curious about early childhood education, but guess where most of that material ended up?

Low rate of return

Now if Charlene Johnson’s Department of Child, Youth and Family Services wants to pump tons of money into daycare for preschoolers, I’m all for it. But if I’m reading this correctly, parents have to spend thousands to get a few hundred bucks back on their tax return:

“Budget 2011 commits $3 million annually for a non-refundable Child Care Credit for deductible child care expenses that have been incurred. This credit allows for a maximum amount of $7,000 per year to be claimed for children up to seven years of age, for a maximum credit of $539, and $4,000 per year for children aged seven to 16, for a maximum credit of $308.”

Spend seven grand, get $500 back; that’s only slightly better than the refund rate on beer bottles.

But even if Johnson were able to perform miracles and provide day care for $7 a day like in Quebec, I still think the provincial Department of Education needs to up the ante.

When I asked Jackman how the provincial Conservatives expect to encourage women to remain in the workforce and contribute to the economy when most mothers in two-income homes have to deal with the stress of carting a child off to kindergarten for a few hours a day, he argued there’d be interruptions for working mothers/parents no matter if kindergarten were a half-day or full-day.

I’m guessing Jackman didn’t have to do the kindergarten shuffle like we did when his children were young.

Pressed for time

In the fall, with the half-day kindergarten program, when I’m working outside my home I will have to drop my child for class at 8:30 a.m., pick him up again at 11:30 a.m. and bring him to a daycare.

That’s not nearly as bad as the months he’ll be in school in the afternoons. Then I will have to bring him to daycare in the morning, go to work for a few hours, pick him up after lunch, bring him to school for two hours — honestly, two hours — and then go pick him up again, bring him back to a daycare and then pick him up again to go home for supper.

Yes, there are day-care centres that will shuttle children around for you, but is that affordable for most young families? It is certainly not efficient.

And let’s not kid ourselves. A lot of parents with a child entering kindergarten have other children they have to care for, too. So even if the kindergarten child is in mornings, the parent still has to go back at 2:30 p.m. to pick up the child’s siblings. Or wake a baby from a nap to drag him out into the bitter cold.

I know certain readers will take offence to my references to mothers being the ones to care for the children, but in my circles it’s generally the mothers who take care of childcare arrangements.

My two-working-parents scenario failed to sway the minister. But that’s OK. I don’t condemn Jackman for deciding to put 2011’s early childhood education money where he did. In fact, I commend him for offering up a full hour of his time to hear what I had to say and respond to my questions.

He and I are passionate about different things. I, about full-day kindergarten; he, about getting tools into the hands of parents so they can educate babies and toddlers at home.

Plenty of prep required

I know we’ve got a lot to do before full-day K can be introduced in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a huge amount of work that will take a great deal of planning and effort, and might even take longer than the time between two elections.

I know it’s unrealistic to suggest an hour’s meeting could convince the minister to divert $4.8 million away from a program that will be up and running with lots of material to wave in the air before the next call to the polls. Plus, what would $4.8 million buy? A few school renovations, at best.

Right now, there are approximately 180 schools in the province that offer kindergarten. Of those, 80-85 would require major renovations to make space for full-day K. Gander, for example, is blocked. Paradise would need an entirely new school. Well, we all know Paradise needs more than a school to cope with the population overload, but that’s a discussion for another column.

Even if funding were to come through for full-day kindergarten, according to the Department of Education no curriculum exists, so no pilot project could be carried out, let alone full implementation. It’s not a matter of simply borrowing a curriculum from another province.

But that’s my point. If Dr. No wants to stick around for a second term, we need to convince her that full-day kindergarten is an issue that is not going to go away.

We need to convince Mr. Money to allocate funding to assess the schools, make the infrastructure work, develop the curriculum, work out the collective bargaining issues and recruit and train the teachers.

That, combined with Charlene Johnson’s department increasing the number of daycare spots and the salary of daycare workers are the only things that will elevate the status of Newfoundland and Labrador on the nationwide comparison of early childhood education called The Early Years, where this province finished dead last.

“I would hope that the next assessment done in this province, even if there’s no full-day kindergarten, would show that … this government has made good decisions in supporting our children and you’d see a different result,” Jackman said before we wrapped up our meeting.

I’m not so sure that Newfoundland and Labrador will greatly improve its rating compared to the other provinces without even an attempt to introduce full-day K.

If I were education minister, I would fight tooth and nail to get funding for development of the full-day K pilot project and curriculum.

But like I said, that’s my dream, not his.

Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca