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Zain Siddiqui, 4, Neha Charles, 5, Aizah Kamran, 5, and Manha Idrees, 4, are pupils at Fraser Mustard Learning Academy in Toronto.DEBORAH BAIC/The Globe and Mail

You don't have to convince the parents of children attending the new Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy in north Toronto about the benefits of all-day kindergarten.

Almost halfway through the school's first year, reviews are positive. Parents say they are often surprised with how much their children have learned at Fraser Mustard, one of the largest all-day kindergarten schools in North America. The kids are bringing home books they want to read at night, and parents are interacting more with the school than they did when older siblings attended half-day kindergarten.

Their experiences add fuel to the debate around investing in early learning. Ontario's Liberal government has staked its reputation on the success of all-day kindergarten, directing more than $1.45-billion in capital costs to expand and retrofit schools, on top of millions in operating dollars. Other provinces, including British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, offer all-day kindergarten, but at the senior kindergarten level only. The Alberta Tories have delayed the program there because of fiscal pressures.

The Fraser Mustard school – named after a key advocate of early-childhood education – is considered one of the best test cases of how all-day kindergarten can influence the learning habits of children and families. With 640 students, the school is nestled in a dense pocket of buildings that serves as a landing pad for many recent immigrants to Toronto. Many students in the area speak a language other than English at home. One of the main reasons cited for the program is to give kids from poorer families a leg up.

Chitra Venkatrao now reads to her daughter before bed every night. It may not be an unusual practice in many Canadian households, but until recently it wasn't part of the bedtime ritual for the mother, who came here from Pakistan eight years ago. Her daughter, five-year-old Neha Charles, won't fall asleep unless the book she brought home from school that particular week is read cover to cover. By the end of the week, Neha has memorized passages. "I have to continue, that's how I feel," Ms.Venkatrao says. "That reading habit will be good for her."

Researchers agree. Marni Brownell, an associate professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba and the lead researcher of a study about all-day kindergarten, says children often do not hold on to their early gains from the program because parents may not be reinforcing literacy and math at home. "If you can get parental involvement, then perhaps you can expect more long-term benefits," she says. "If we just had full-day kindergarten and no parental change, I don't know how we could expect the long-term benefits, when you stop and think about it, because kids spend more of their time at home than they do in school."

The study she led found that children who went through all-day kindergarten at two school districts in that province were no better off in the long term than those who attended a half-day program. The researchers looked at reading, writing, math and student engagement assessments (not standardized test results) done in Grades 3, 7, 8 and 9 from 5,800 all-day kindergarten kids compared with 12,000 kids in half-day programs. Prof. Brownell is reluctant to dismiss the program altogether, because her study did not look at social or emotional development or graduation outcomes. All-day kindergarten is not province-wide in Manitoba, but is offered in some divisions and in some schools within divisions.

"We found no statistically significant differences for any of the measures we looked at – for any of those long-term academic outcomes," Prof. Brownell says. "By Grade 3, we weren't seeing the differences."

Ontario's all-day learning program, introduced in the fall of 2010, incorporates two years of a revamped curriculum for junior and senior kindergarten and emphasizes play-based learning. A teacher and an early-childhood educator work together in the classroom.

"I don't think the Manitoba study tells us much at all about Ontario," says Jane Bertrand, adjunct faculty at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, who has researched all-day kindergarten in Ontario. "We've got a very different approach to curriculum and pedagogy and staff teams."

A recent Ontario study of almost 700 children found that kids enrolled in the first two years of the province's all-day learning program were better prepared for Grade 1 right across the learning-skills spectrum than those who had only one year in the program. They were also two to four times more prepared than those who never set foot in an all-day kindergarten classroom.

The study didn't look at specific cohorts, but because the program was first introduced in areas identified as vulnerable, it can be assumed that the study represents students in higher-risk groups. The study was conducted from 2010 to 2012 by researchers at Queen's and McMaster universities.

Ms. Bertrand agrees with Prof. Brownell that having parents commit to learning is key for kids to do well at school. A true picture of how well Ontario's all-day kindergarten students have fared will come from standardized test scores in 2014 that will assess the math, reading and writing skills of the first cohort.

"Parents trump everything else all along the way in kids' lives," Ms. Bertrand says. "It makes sense that when parents are engaged and comfortable, then it's a powerful force that accelerates how kids do."

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