Earlier this year, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment announced a new junior kindergarten initiative to provide free school-based programming for four year olds across the NWT. There has been a great deal of concern from school boards and parents about the money required to implement this new program, and in June, MLAs passed a motion asking the department to seek new money to fund it. However, the conversation should be about more than just the money for junior kindergarten.
To help promote the program, the department has been running weekly newspaper ads extolling its virtues. The entire campaign has been confusing, given the government’s policy direction. In fact, the first ad was a letter from Education Minister Jackson Lafferty that opened by saying, “I know from my own experience that the best environment for our little kids is in their own home…” and then goes on to talk about how this new program is being created because staying home isn’t always possible. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be copying Quebec’s strategy of extending maternity leaves so parents can stay home? Ever since the first ads appeared, the department has continually ramped up the public pressure by talking about how great the new program is – except it hasn’t advertised the actual details about how junior kindergarten will work.
No one can argue that for communities with no daycare options this program certainly fills a gap. However, in Yellowknife and the 22 other communities that already have childcare options, such as Aboriginal Headstart, school-based user-pay preschool, Montessori, daycare centres, or local day homes – there is no such gap in need of filling.
To me, it is especially telling that the department has had to spend considerable funds telling us how great a program is, and yet still faces public backlash. A program that the government asserts will substantially improve education outcomes for children and reduce the cost of living for families shouldn’t need to be forced on the public.
Even worse, the small groups of kids and teachers our four year olds now enjoy in all licensed daycare facilities will become a thing of the past, since in the new school-based junior kindergarten classrooms, the 1:8 staff to student ratio will no longer apply. This will lead to class sizes similar to other primary years of education.
As well, taking four year olds out of existing facilities will make it difficult for many of them to stay open. Without four year olds in the mix, many existing preschools and day homes will have difficulty filling spots. There is no plan for what will happen with the current early childhood educators who can teach four year olds now, but when junior kindergarten starts will no longer be qualified (as it will need to be taught by standard school board teachers).
Especially of concern to parents is what these changes will do to the cost of childcare for children younger than four. With costs going up every year, many parents are already paying $1,000 a month and this just isn’t sustainable for families. If the program does result in fewer options for childcare, the costs will likely get driven up even further.
There is a lot of potential for programming like junior kindergarten to benefit Yellowknifers if it is implemented properly. Rather than a program that only takes care of four year olds, our government should be finding ways to help new parents be better parents, make it more affordable for those parents who choose to stay home with their child to do so, and reduce the overall cost of childcare for all ages. These years are the most important for a child’s development and we need to make sure that every child gets the best possible opportunity to thrive.
David Wasylciw is a Yellowknife parent, an active volunteer, and chair of the NWT Montessori Society.