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This article was published 21/11/2013 (2623 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

By nearly every measure, children in the North End and Point Douglas are falling behind.

Now, the inner-city neighbourhoods will become a kind of lab where innovations in early childhood programs will be tested to see if they work.

That could mean doubling the number of kids whose language, emotional skills and physical health make them ready to start school, as measured by a key indicator called the early development instrument (EDI). Manitoba kids have traditionally fared remarkably poorly in EDI ratings.

Premier Greg Selinger and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation announced a $1-million innovation fund Thursday at the wrap-up of a daylong summit on early childhood development. Winnipeg's business community is also expected to chip in as part of a new focus on solving social problems as a way to boost the economy.

Manitoba, like nearly every jurisdiction in North America, has a patchwork of early childhood programs such as prenatal care, nursery schools and parenting programs. The science is clear that the infant and toddler years are critical to brain development, but so far, policy-makers have struggled to capitalize on that science with social programs that really work, especially for poor families.

Ian Gill, one of the architects of the innovation fund, said the province has spent $100 million on early childhood programs in the last decade with little improvement in actual outcomes such as school readiness. Adding one more nursery school or another prenatal outreach program isn't going to capture enough people or really fix the problem, he said.

Instead, what's needed is real innovation, though what that will look like is still murky. Consultations with Point Douglas and the North End will be the first step to creating a five- or six-year early childhood strategy for the neighbourhood that will likely include several pilot projects as well as cash to properly measure outcomes.

Doubling school readiness rates is one possible goal, but the first step involves consultations with the neighbourhood. Those will begin likely early in the new year.

"Everyone in the world wants to get this right," said Gill. "Winnipeg might actually do it."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca