An ambitious commitment by the Ontario government to roll out full-day kindergarten across the province by next fall is being met with skepticism from school boards where student enrollment is growing.
However, the man charged with implementing the program says the government will not waver from its pledge to offer all-day kindergarten to every student by September, 2014.
"The commitment has been five years. I know it's a struggle for some boards to meet that, and so they'll have to find ways to accommodate while they're in the process of building," Jim Grieve, assistant deputy minister of the early learning division, told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
"Regardless of whether the construction is finished, the children will be in full-day kindergarten, and boards will make that accommodation. That's the expectation, and they know it."
Two school boards, Peel District School Board and Halton District School Board, say they cannot guarantee kindergarten classes will be ready for four- and five-year-olds under the strict timeline set out by the province.
School boards saved their most difficult projects for the last year of the rollout, and construction cost overruns and an unexpected jump in enrollment, despite the best projections, would easily set them back. Halton, for example, has seen kindergarten enrollment climb 70 per cent between 2008 and 2012, and it is not projected to slow down.
Already, the Peel Region District School Board has faced challenges with escalating construction costs and a shortage of government dollars, not to mention enrollment exceeding the number of classes funded by the Ministry of Education.
"It is worrying, because as a board that needs to be fiscally responsible, we're not going to rob from one program to pay for another program," said Shirley-Ann Teal, Peel's co-ordinating superintendent for instructional support services. "Will we be ready for Year 5? I hope so, but we can't guarantee that."
Mark Zonneveld, the superintendent responsible for implementing full-day kindergarten in Halton, said while the board anticipates being ready, "we can't make any guarantees because of factors outside our control related to the construction industry."
The full-day kindergarten program is being rolled out in phases. The government is spending more than $1.45-billion in capital costs to expand and retrofit schools, on top of millions in operating dollars. Early evidence from Ontario shows that students in the program are getting a leg up, especially in reading, vocabulary and phonetics. But it will be years before taxpayers know whether full-day kindergarten delivers on its promise of higher graduation rates and improved academic outcomes. Across the country, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island recently introduced all-day kindergarten programs. Quebec has had full-day kindergarten for years.
Since the Ontario government introduced it in the fall of 2010, full-day kindergarten has been popular with parents. Critics, however, characterize it as an expensive form of government-backed daycare. A recent Drummond Report recommended either cutting the program to save $1.5-billion a year, delaying the rollout until 2017 or reducing staff to make it more affordable.
The Liberal government has vowed to continue to fund the program. Still, Mr. Grieve said that the government is not putting any more money into capital or operating funds, and any cost overruns would have to be shouldered by school boards.
Among the 900 schools offering full-day kindergarten this fall is the Fraser Mustard Learning Academy in north Toronto – one of the largest all-day kindergarten schools in North America. The school will welcome about 685 students next week.
The school is next door to Thorncliffe Park Public School, which is bursting with more than 1,400 children in Grades 1 to 5. The area is a dense pocket of buildings that serves as a landing pad for many recent immigrants.
Principal Catherine Ure and school officials gave the media a tour of the school Thursday. Teachers were setting up their classrooms, despite last-minute construction. Of the first day of school, Ms. Ure said: "It's going to be pretty overwhelming for 700 [kindergarten students]. I don't think there will be too many kids crying. I think there will be anxious parents. But I have very good teachers who have done a lot of research and a lot of workshops around the early years and how to support young learners."