9. Turning chaos into systems

We need to turn our family policy junkyard into a human development system. By viewing the school as a family centre not only for students during the school day, but also for families during non-school hours, we can have an early childhood system that responds to the new Canadian mother and her children, as well as the expectant mother, the at-home father and dual-income professionals and their children.

Figure 1.10

What are the features of family-centred schools that welcome babies to adolescents?

  • Rooted in its community: It is not the wealth of a neighbourhood, but its sense of neighbourliness, that makes it a good place to raise children. Social cohesion brings a sense of individual security and belonging that trumps socioeconomic status when it comes to positive outcomes for children. Schools that are at the centre of their neighbourhood nurture social networks that extend inside and beyond the school walls. They introduce children and families to community resources, such as parks, libraries, recreation, commercial and cultural centres. They enrich the learning environment by bringing the neighbourhood into the school, whether it is the optometrist, dentist, coach, local historian or visual artist. In one school, the interest of the kindergarten class in nutrition was expanded by planting an herb garden. A keen gardener who lived across the street from the school volunteered her expertise. ‘Her’ 4-year-olds are now in grade 4 and often return the favour: “There’s no shortage of volunteers to help me rake or weed.” Children who learn the joys of volunteerism are more likely to become adults who contribute.54 U.S. research indicates that schools where students feel respected, that are intensively used, and that have good community connections experience less vandalism, regardless of neighbourhood income.55 In an era of declining student enrolment, locating early childhood programs in schools helps maintain the viability of the school and, especially in small rural areas, the school can preserve the community.
  • Open to all: Public funding means everyone gets to participate. Canada scores rather well on quality of living indexes, in part because it is a model for pluralism.56 We have so far been spared the ideological fundamentalism that has brought violence and insecurity to much of the world. On a planet that is stretched between growing populations and shrinking water and food sources, our very survival as a species depends on our ability to develop and share solutions. Neighbourhood schools not only teach kids about their world, they showcase it. “Our family doesn’t hold religious observance,” one mother relates. “But I love that my 5-year-old sings ‘Dreidle, Dreidle’ and gets wide eyed over the ancient story of Hanukkah, that ‘Miriam’s mommy told us’.” In another example, a class of 4- and 5-year-olds as ethnically representative as a UN delegation makes its way down the Rideau Canal strapped into their first pair of ice skates, getting a lesson in what it means to be Canadian. Dr. Fraser Mustard relates that puppies and kittens raised together grow up to be cats and dogs that get along; the same can be said of people. In a world undergoing a social and environmental revolution, getting along is crucial.
  • Champions a whole child approach to learning: Early childhood education is rooted in the evidence that learning takes place best in meaningful, playful environments rich with opportunities for exploration. It recognizes that children who are ill-nurtured, rarely encouraged or unable to communicate with their peers and teachers will find it difficult to develop numeracy and literacy skills. Introducing this perspective into schools has been found to lessen the restrictive focus on cognitive skills and to smooth transitions for children from preschool to kindergarten and into the elementary grades.57 Family-centred schools recognize that children do not exist apart from their families. Parents are respected for the primary role they play in their child’s development and are welcomed as essential partners of the teaching team.58
  • Democratic: Democracy demands day-to-day involvement that goes beyond electing school trustees and the parent council. When early childhood programs are integrated with schools, parents are more likely to view the school’s staff as part of their social networks. Research shows parents feel more connected to the school. They take responsibility for talking to their child’s educators and believe that administrators listen to and respect their viewpoints and act on their suggestions.59 Parents who become active when their children are in preschool are more likely to remain active when their children reach elementary school. Parent advocates are key to family-centred schools and to their own children’s success in school.
  • A strong policy and administrative framework: Without a plan to address the fragmentation that plagues early childhood programming, public policy will continue to flounder. Only senior levels of government have the authority to merge public and private services with multiple and overlapping purposes, regulatory requirements and funding. Politicians take one look at this file and run. If anything, they create yet another program that they can brand as their own, wasting resources with misdirected or duplicated services—hence the alphabet soup of services parents must navigate. More recently, jurisdictions have responded by moving responsibility for child care to their education departments. Often this is as far as it goes, while on-the-ground providers are each left in their own service ghettos. Integration is tough work, but it creates a foundation for growth. Rather than playing child care against kindergarten or parenting programs, an early childhood system does not differentiate between education and care. New investments expand and improve the system and the life chances of children.

Our proposals for family-centred schools may be misinterpreted as denigrating the contributions of the health and child care sectors to children and families. Rather, we start from the considerable international evidence in choosing education as the base upon which to grow an early childhood system. Education is unambiguous. It is about children—all children. From this universal and well-established platform, a modern understanding that learning begins at birth and continues throughout life can be grown. There is no need to reinvent the wheel—education already comes with a strong infrastructure (financing, training, curriculum, data collection, evaluation and research).60

Parents demonstrate their trust in education by sending their children to school. Among our Anglo- American counterparts, Canada has the highest enrolment in publicly funded education.61 Parent confidence is well-founded. Our public schools have produced political leaders, Supreme Court judges, recipients of the Order of Canada and cultural and scientific icons. Schools have helped to prepare children born here and abroad to participate in shaping a democracy that is pluralistic and respectful. Early childhood programming provides an opportunity to transform schools into vibrant family centres that welcome children and families before, during and after the school bell rings.

Figure 1.11

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