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Early childhood educators fill the public gallery during debate about eliminating over 400 of their positions during a meeting of the Toronto District School Board in Toronto, April 11, 2012.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Hundreds of education assistants will be cut from Toronto schools next school year as the Toronto District School Board struggles to cope with a large projected deficit and the costs of full-day kindergarten.

Trustees decided late Wednesday that 430 of 493.5 education assistant jobs should be cut in order to generate about $22-million in savings for next school year. The board will also be hiring 406 early childhood educators who are required to staff full-day kindergarten classrooms.

Many trustees said they only supported the cuts because of a unique retraining program developed in partnership between the TDSB, Ontario's Ministry of Education, Humber College and the union that represents education assistants.

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Through that agreement, education assistants will be given a two-year window to become certified as early childhood educators. Humber will offer the necessary courses in the evenings and during school holidays, and education assistants will be allowed to work in full-day kindergarten classrooms.

"It's not an easy option, it's a lot of work for those who choose to do it," said Trustee Howard Goodman. "But for those education assistants who [participate] it will mean a bump in salary, and they can do the training while they work."

Education assistants work alongside elementary teachers at every grade level, providing classroom support for special needs students or those who might be struggling with the day's lesson.

Rosemary Phillips, an education assistant at Chester Elementary School in East York, believes the cuts will be felt in the classroom.

"The teachers will suffer, but the kids will suffer the most," she said. "If there's not an [education assistant]in the classroom, the teacher cannot spend more time with the kids who need extra help, and those children just won't learn."

Many work in kindergarten classrooms, but Ontario's new full-day kindergarten program has created a shift in the job market: It requires that an early childhood educator work alongside the classroom teacher. (As part of the new agreement, the ministry of education will make an exception for education assistants participating in Humber's retraining program.)

In anticipation of this shift, the TDSB began working out the details of a partnership with Humber College more than two years ago.

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An early childhood educator program takes about two years to complete, and there are about 70 TDSB education assistants currently working on their certification at Humber College, according to the program's co-ordinator, Theresa Steger.

She said 20 are expected to graduate this summer with full certification. The full-day kindergarten program was introduced in the fall of 2010 and is being gradually rolled out across the province.

Ms. Phillips has 30 years of experience as an education assistant. At 59 she isn't ready to retire, but she also feels too old to spend thousands of dollars to go back to school for two years.

It's unusual for someone with so much seniority to face layoffs, but the TDSB's cuts are so deep that she could lose her job.

"I don't know what I'll do," she said. "At my age it's very hard to get work. They're looking for young people in their 20s."

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