Four years ago, Nicole Doyon and her family fled from the expense of the Lower Mainland to Vernon, B.C., so that she could stay at home with her two sons.
Now, the debut of full-day kindergarten across much of the province next month has thwarted that plan, with her five-year-old, Jax, at school all day a year before she had expected.
"I hate the whole idea of it," says Ms. Doyon. "They are still young at five. We are expecting them to be so much older than they really are."
She's considering becoming a kindergarten dissident - she might pull her son out of the classroom after lunchtime if he feels he can't handle the stresses of the new environment.
While Ms. Doyon is anxious, Nicole Aerts in Saanich is excited at the prospect of full-day kindergarten, seeing it as an excellent education opportunity for her daughter, Tamara, and an answer to her daycare dilemmas. "It's a really good fit for the kids, and organizationally, it makes my life as a working parent so much easier," she said.
Despite stretched coffers, B.C. will spend $424-million to begin rolling out universal, full-day kindergarten, an undertaking that policymakers promise will boost graduation rates and test scores, although its full impact won't be known until the first group graduates from high school in 2022.
But universal kindergarten isn't being universally embraced. Some, like Ms. Doyon, are worried about the long day that children will face, while others criticize the province for embarking on an expensive new program even as it reins in education spending in other areas.
Right now, full day kindergarten is limited to 6,000 children deemed to be at risk of having difficulty in school, who are either of aboriginal descent, speak English as a second language or have special needs. This fall, half of all children entering kindergarten will be enrolled in a full-day program, pushing that total to 21,000, with the whole cohort following next September.
Despite a provincial deficit forecast at almost $2-billion, B.C. education minister Margaret MacDiarmid said the expansion of kindergarten is a good investment.
"If you have excellent, high-quality, play-based learning for kindergarten students, that does make a difference," Ms. MacDiarmid said. "They are more likely to do well in school, to do well in testing, to have higher graduation rates and more of them go onto post-secondary education."
Half-day programs don't provide enough time to get through the curriculum and are not allowing all students to thrive, she said.
Twenty-nine per cent of students aren't ready to face Grade 1 after a half-day program, according to early development index testing that measures the physical, emotional, social and cognitive development of children, Ms. MacDiarmid said.
A further 18 per cent do not meet the expectations of standardized tests in Grade 4, and 20 per cent drop out of high school, she said.
The government hopes more class time will improve the numbers, as does the BC Primary Teachers' Association. "It's going to be a real gift of time for the kids coming into the program," said Lori Boychuk, the association's president, and a kindergarten teacher for 30 years -- who will be teaching her first full-day class this year.
Full days won't have children learning more, but will give them more time to learn though playing. "When you sit them down in front of books and paper, they zone out," Ms. Boychuk said.
Ms. MacDiarmid acknowledged some parents have concerns about placing too much of a burden on young shoulders. "One of the things parents are worried about is that kids are going to be lined up with desks and have little briefcases and laptops," Ms. MacDiarmid said. "If you go into one of these classrooms, you will see kids playing."
Play was top of mind for Marilyn Chapman, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Early Childhood Education and Research, who wrote the book on how to teach full-day kindergarten in B.C.
Full-day kindergarten provides the time for hands-on experiences, which are the most important for learning, Ms. Chapman said.
Evidence of potential improvements in student performance, however, won't emerge for years.
Initially, the province will track success by looking at the early development index, Ms. MacDiarmid said, adding that test scores and high school graduation rates will be tracked later.
Even then, it will be difficult to pinpoint the effect of full-day kindergarten. "Unfortunately it's not a scientific experiment where you can control all the variables," Ms. MacDiarmid said.
There is no reason to believe full-day kindergarten will improve the lives of children, said Helen Ward, president of Kids First Parent Association of Canada. The advocacy group supports parental care for children over state-provided daycare.
Canada already ranks among the top six countries in a triennial education survey of 15-year-olds done by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Ms. Ward said.
"If it's not broke, what are they trying to fix?" she said. "The government has no mandate to do this. There is no election promise. There's not been a grassroots parental movement for more school time."
Ms. Ward called full-day kindergarten a backdoor attempt at institutionalized daycare. The government should cut parents a cheque so they can make their own choice, she said, instead of forcing them to pay for a program they may not support.
Choice is something Ms. Doyon wants, suggesting the government offer full-day and half-day kindergarten and the option of alternating full- and half-days.
"Give parents the choice, because we are not all the same," she said.
Full-day kindergarten caters to working parents, not those who rearranged their lives to stay home with their children, she said, adding that she feels Jax would get all he needs to succeed in a half-day program, coupled the activities she does with him at home.
For Ms. Aerts, choice is also important - in her case, the far superior choice of full-day kindergarten over day care.
The provincial infusion of education dollars into school boards comes in a year in which school districts faced a $38.1-million budget shortfall, and resulting cuts.
While she supports full-day kindergarten, Vancouver School Board chairwoman Patti Bacchus said its potential benefits won't be realized unless the province restores funding for other programs.
"We're adding this - it's a positive program - but it shouldn't be at the cost of tried-and-true supports for students," she said. "We are losing special education teachers. We are losing counselors. We are losing ESL support."
The money for all-day kindergarten is new and hasn't been taken from other education programs, Ms. MacDiarmid said.
"We have a good school system now, and putting more money into doing things the same way, I'm really not in favour of that," she said. "I want it to be for things like...expanding early learning."
Even if it is as successful as proponents hope, the expansion of early learning will include only half of B.C.'s five-year-olds this year.
That cohort won't include the two grandchildren of kindergarten expert Ms. Chapman. They will attend schools with only part-day kindergarten this year. But she said she's not worried they'll fall behind.
"There's more to do with children's success and achievements than the time that they are spending at school," she said, adding that if caregivers provide a rich learning environment for the rest of the day, the children will be just fine.