Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kindergarten benefits real, but modest

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A Winnipeg School Division trustee is pressing for full-day nursery and kindergarten, pointing to Ontario, which began rolling it out in 2010. But trustees and taxpayers in Manitoba should look critically at the results, recently found by an evaluation of 693 pupils that compared those in half-day programs with full-day counterparts.

The data show real gains, generally, across almost all indicators of a child's chance at success in school -- things such as language and cognition, emotional maturity, and communication and general knowledge. But for the cost, trustees should ask if there is a better way to spend money.

The analysis found Ontario's nascent experience with full-day kindergarten had reduced the proportion of children at risk in the various areas by as much as five percentage points, compared with those in half-day programs. For example, among those who already had a year of half-day junior kindergarten, 10.5 per cent were deemed vulnerable to falling behind in school due to their communication skills and general knowledge. That number was 5.6 per cent for the children who had a year of full-day junior kindergarten. In language and cognitive development, after a year of half-day JK, about seven per cent of the children were at risk, while after a year of full-day JK about 4.9 per cent were at risk. Meanwhile, those considered most vulnerable -- scoring poorly on two of the areas measured -- stood at more than 13 per cent for the half-day JK group and nine per cent for those who had a year of full-day JK.

The obvious indication of the data is exposure to early childhood education dramatically reduces the number of children unready for Grade 1 -- no surprise there. That is why the Winnipeg board has a division-wide nursery (junior kindergarten) program, something almost all other public schools are missing. But does the gap between the groups -- those with and those without early education -- hold out through the school years?

Neither Ontario nor Manitoba has studied whether the benefits gained early by children carry through the grades and improve graduation rates, generally. That's a glaring hole. Perhaps the greatest benefit of early exposure to high-quality programs is to Manitoba's children born in poverty -- those most likely to fail at school, become unemployed and involved in crime, as seen in the HighScope Perry pre-school program in the U.S.

School boards, parents and taxpayers have to decide if the considerable expense of full-day kindergarten is worth more than another approach -- implementing half-day nursery programs throughout the province, for example. Ontario is spending $1.45 billion in capital costs alone to roll out its expansion and millions annually in operating costs. In Manitoba, Education Minister Nancy Allan estimated full-day kindergarten would cost $80 million per year.

Some school boards here have implemented full-day kindergarten in schools in low-income neighbourhoods where children have been shown to fall behind at much higher rates very early.

The Ontario government is using the recent evaluation to support its decision to have all schools offer full-day junior and senior kindergarten a year from now. But the more useful analysis in Manitoba might look at the benefit of province-wide nursery programs and compare it to the benefits of full-day models.

No doubt many parents would welcome full-day nursery or kindergarten, to cut their daycare bills. But early childhood education is expensive -- the Winnipeg school board's half-day nursery program costs $5.3 million this year, an expense borne entirely by property owners within the division. It is little wonder why other boards have not moved to adopt the program. A patchwork approach to early education, where benefits are shown to justify the expense, is a lousy way to invest in children, and the future of the province. Expansion of nursery or kindergarten programs in Manitoba ought to be financed from provincial revenues, not on the backs of property owners.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2013 A14

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