Every province and territory is focusing on early learning. In Ontario, a new full-day kindergarten program is being implemented gradually over a five-year period.
When I began to lead implementation of a new full-day kindergarten program for four and five year olds in Ontario, the first thing I did was to take to the road. Every week for the past two years, I’ve been visiting communities across the province. From Kenora and Red Lake to Ottawa and Smith Falls, from Windsor and Chatham to Moosonee and Moose Factory, I’ve spent time in schools, childcare centres and community coalition meetings.
Staff from the division have often been right along with me. Almost every member of the Early Learning Division has been on a least one school visit. From policy and administrative staff to those responsible for implementation, we’ve all made it our mission to personally see and experience the program up close and personal. We’ve crawled around on the floor with the children, discovered how high a tower of blocks can be built before it falls over, and played tic-tac-toe using a four-year-old’s rules.
Our new program reflects the intersection of research, international best practice and policy that integrates the needs of families, children, schools and other stakeholders.
In every aspect of our work, our success depends on our partners. We regularly meet, consult with and provide information to hundreds of partner and stakeholder groups. Through advisory, reference and working groups, we have formal relationships with our partners. We meet one-to-one with partner organizations at least annually.
We also connect with our partners informally in many ways. For example, we have six early learning education officers who work in regional offices throughout the province and connect directly with school boards and other partners.
We’ve deliberately taken a collaborative approach – listening to our partners at every stage of policy and legislative development and implementation.
This staged approach was designed to give school boards time to get ready for the program. But we also knew we’d learn a great deal from the first and second years of the implementation that could be used as we move toward full implementation in September 2014.
Attending kindergarten is optional. But, once it’s fully implemented, the program will be universally accessible to all families who want to enroll.
One groundbreaking aspect to the program is the team approach in the classroom. Each classroom has a registered early childhood educator and a certified teacher. Both ECE and teacher bring individual strengths and perspectives as well as a set of professional competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities. The two professionals work in partnership and share responsibilities. The average class size is 26, so the adult/child ratio is 1:13.
Another innovative feature is the play-based curriculum. It’s based on the latest brain research and the most up-to-date understanding of how young children learn and develop.
Extending the learning program into the before- and after-school programs is also a unique feature. Though optional for parents, school boards must provide before- and after-school programming (on a cost-recovery basis) if there is sufficient interest. Boards can operate the program themselves or contract a licensed childcare provider to run the program.
Now in the second year of our implementation, we have 50,000 or 20 percent of kindergarten children in the new program. In September 2012, almost half of the four and five year-olds will be in full-day kindergarten.
At full implementation in September 2014, the program will provide about a quarter-million student spaces.
Sharing the story
Through the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, we’ve established an early learning working group which I’m pleased to co-chair. Formed in September 2011, we’ve already done considerable work.
Our collaboration extends beyond national borders. Ontario welcomes many international delegations every year – educators who’ve taken to the road to gain new policy perspectives about kindergarten and early learning by visiting our province. In the past year, I’ve been pleased to meet and speak with delegations from China, Vietnam, Norway and India, among others.
Jim Grieve is assistant deputy minister of early learning for the Ontario Ministry of Education. To learn more, visit www.ontario.ca/kindergarten.