Elementary school is the place for many firsts — first best friend, first crush, first fight, first nemesis. In the classroom, we’re laying the foundation for a lot of first memories and first experiences. Ensuring that these memories are fond ones for every student is a must. It all begins with creating the supports needed for the variety of early childhood experiences that kids face — whether it is being from a family where English isn’t the first (or even third) language or coming to school for their first meal of the day. It's important to recognize the diversity and range of learning needs we must prioritize when pursuing early childhood development.
Children who enter Ontario schools without language proficiency in either English or French require more support to ensure they progress well academically, socially and emotionally. The number of children who speak neither English nor French when they register for school has increased significantly. The 2017 People for Education annual survey of public schools reports that 63 per cent of English elementary schools have English language learners (ELL) compared to 43 per cent in 2002-03. These students face significant challenges in catching up to their peers and schools do not have adequate resources to support them. The challenges have increased within the last couple of years as Ontario schools have welcomed into their classrooms Syrian and other refugees, many of whom had experienced trauma and been without school for a considerable period of time.
There is no direct accountability for school boards to spend their second language grants on the intended programs. All too often, the overall shortfalls in the funding formula have led to school boards using their second language grants for other purposes and shortchanging ELL students.
Students who enter English language schools without English as a first language should also have the opportunity to benefit from French immersion programs. These students often need additional support to be successful in the immersion program; additional supports should be provided to ELL students enrolled in these classes.
Educators need classroom materials that reflect the diversity of their classrooms and school communities.
To promote engaged and active learning among all students, classrooms and school libraries need textbooks and other resources that reflect the rich cultural, racial and gender identities of students and their families. Ontario has adopted an Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy. This policy provides an important policy framework for equity but more needs to be done to ensure that the vision for equity is realized. Teachers need classroom materials that reflect the diversity of their classrooms and school communities. Teachers and other education workers also need professional learning that improves their ability to address racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and classism, elements that affect our schools and permeate our society.
In the past, when school boards had taxation powers, some of them funded community workers who interacted with parents, in particular those who were immigrants and refugees. These workers served as an important link between schools and those parents who weren’t able or inclined to be active in their child’s school. Their work helped to address language and class barriers and broaden the school’s connection with the more marginalized in the community. Currently, the Ministry of Education, through the Parent Engagement Office, supports important initiatives to promote parent engagement but the initiatives can’t fill the gap of work formerly done by community workers. The Ministry should support school board community workers through Grants for Student Needs.
Children Living In Poverty
Perhaps the most significant factor contributing to the difference in student achievement is socio-economic status. Reports by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conclude that countries with smaller gaps in income inequality have higher student achievement levels. Its reports have attributed Canadian students’ high achievement scores on international assessments, in part, to the narrow income gap and social programs that support lower-income Canadians. However, Canada is poised to lose this advantage as we witness a widening income gap. Lower family incomes mean many students arrive at school hungry and unable to fully engage in learning. School nutrition programs only partially meet the need and can be stigmatizing and short-term.
Schools can address poverty-related issues. For example, with the Ministry of Education support, ETFO has developed a number of programs to increase teacher and community awareness about poverty issues and has promoted school nutrition programs. However, the root causes of poverty must be addressed at the macro level. The education funding formula must be revised to more effectively provide disadvantaged students with access to resources and experiences that more affluent students take for granted. Additional funding is required to expand library resources and access to computers and increase the number of field trips and in-school arts performances. These additional resources would increase student engagement and student success. ETFO’s experience through its poverty work at the school level also points to the importance of school boards employing community workers to make connections with parents and foster greater parental engagement in their child’s school and education.
Beyond the school level, Ontario must also live up to the commitment of its poverty reduction strategy and address income levels, social housing needs and access to early intervention programs. The federal government has a key role to play in addressing poverty but Ontario can do its part by investing more in anti-poverty strategies. Increasing the hourly minimum wage to $15 and the guaranteed living wage pilot project are important steps forward. Other measures include more generous income support programs and tax reform to distribute economic prosperity more evenly in the province.
Expansion And Integration of Children’s Services
In 2016, The Ontario government announced a commitment to create an additional 100,000 child care spaces over five years. However, the objective of expanding access to spaces cannot be reached without significant reform to how child care is funded. The demand for child care is high and the government has rightly identified additional child care spaces as a priority but Ontario is experiencing the paradox of long waiting lists for subsidized spaces while available spaces remain unfilled because parents who do not qualify for subsidies cannot afford the exorbitant fees.
To achieve its goal of creating 100,000 additional spaces, the government must significantly increase the funding allocated to capital projects, child care subsidies and wage enhancement grants for child care workers.
Schools can build partnerships with the community if they function as hubs for children’s services. The government’s recent announcement to add additional child care spaces in schools is a positive step forward and aligns with the concept of establishing schools as hubs for children’s services. There are models where schools are the sites for community recreation programs or public libraries, but such examples are far too rare. More can be done to integrate services, especially in communities with declining enrolment where schools have available space. Better integration at the community level should result in cost efficiencies through reduced program overhead costs.Take action to prioritize diversity Share it!
- Revise English as a Second Language (ESL) grants to more accurately reflect the number of students who don’t speak English when they enrol at school.
- Revise English as a Second Language grants to increase the capacity of schools to extend these programs to students who continue to need the support beyond four years.
- Provide classroom resources to support the Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.
- Provide teachers with training that addresses discrimination and oppression of marginalized students.
- Fund community workers at the school board level through the Grants for Student Needs.
- Provide specific compensatory grants for schools in disadvantaged communities to support additional learning materials, field trips, and in-school arts programs.
- Increase investments in anti-poverty measures such as income support measures and tax reform.
- Increase funding to expand parent access to early learning and care programs for children aged 0 to 3.8 by funding capital expansion, child care subsidies and wage enhancement for child care staff.
- Increase the capacity of schools to act as hubs for community services.
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