Want real prosperity? Intervene really early

GERRY POND COMMENTARY - Telegraph Journal – September 13, 2014

The headlines in Saint John in recent weeks have included some very unwelcome news.

In a tie with Toronto, Saint John has the highest rate of child poverty among cities in Canada, with 29 per cent of children in our community living below the poverty line.

This statistic is certainly troubling, but it is not necessarily surprising for those who have been working to develop and implement solutions to childhood poverty in Saint John.

Breaking the cycle of poverty is the nut that many community organizations have been trying to crack for years. Programs have been put in place with the shared goal of attacking this issue at its root. They are guided by the belief that by giving children the tools and resources required to succeed, they will be more likely to become adults equipped with the skills required to be self-sufficient, contributing members of our community.

The Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative (BCAPI) and others involved with programs such as PALs, Sistema, the Promise Partnership, and Elementary Literacy Friends are intervening in various ways to ensure that all children have access to these skills and equal   opportunities for success. Yet for many, an imbalance has been established before they ever enter a classroom. Students begin school at all levels of skill and development. Some start kindergarten prepared with basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, while others are only being introduced to these concepts for the first time.

Kindergarten students who lack basic skills are likely to struggle as they move through the school system. Without significant help these students can never catch up. The best solution to these inequities is to start their education earlier.

Emerging neuroscience research reveals that children’s earliest life experiences shape their brain’s architecture. Harvard’s Centre on the Developing Child states: “healthy development in the early years provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities and successful parenting of the next generation”.

Evidence is also clear that investments in early childhood and parenting education are essential to breaking the stranglehold of poverty. In fact, these investments offer a far greater return for every dollar invested.

According to the World Bank, “the longer a society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child,   the more costly it is to remediate the disadvantage. Indeed ECD interventions have not only a high cost-benefit ratio, but also a higher rate of return for each dollar invested than interventions directed at older children and adults. Evidence suggests a potential return rate of 7–16 per cent annually from high-quality ECD programs targeting vulnerable groups.” (Investing in Young Children, 2011).

Communities and governments worldwide are embracing the evidence and investing where it counts.

But where is New Brunswick’s pre-kindergarten education plan?

The provincial department of education is responsible and accountable for educating our children, and also for evolving the system by which they do it. The flaw in the current system as it relates to children living in poverty is that it does not take into consideration the first five years of a child’s life.

It assumes that parents and the community are teaching basic skills and modeling behaviours to achieve in adulthood.

Unfortunately, for children born into the cycle of poverty, this is not always the case.

Eight Early Learning Centres, piloted by the Province with the assistance of the McCain Foundation, have shown promising results. These Centres play two crucial roles: they give young children access to fundamental skills, and they engage parents in the process, thus reaching two generations in one intervention.

The results from Saint John’s Early Learning Centre has convinced BCAPI that it’s time for the provincial government to scale up early learning programming as a mandatory part of the education system in New Brunswick, and to begin in neighbourhoods and schools where parents and children will benefit the most.

Having students enter the public education system at an even earlier age means children will have access to support and resources during the most critical time in their development. It means there will be less of an education gap between children when they enter grade one. And most importantly, it will socialize parents — the child’s primary educator — to the concept of being active participants in their children’s education, with tools and resources of their own to help them be successful in this endeavor.

There are social and financial implications to a change of this scale. The initial investment for expanding the education system to include a broader segment of our young population would be large, certainly. But it must be considered against the current costs to our communities. Costs that would be reduced if the   provincial education system is graduating more young people equipped to be productive and successful adults. Let’s invest where it matters most.

We know the impact a high poverty rate has on a community. It’s felt far beyond those who are living in poverty, with implications on our social services, justice and health systems. It’s time for the government to be more proactive in solving poverty in this province, and to begin by helping those born into the cycle of poverty build an intellectual and emotional toolkit that will allow them to rise above and break the cycle.

Creating jobs is only part of the solution.

Providing our children with the education to take on these jobs should be a government priority.

Borrowing from the words of George Bernard Shaw, progress is impossible without change. Together, let’s build a continuum of learning that begins at birth. During this election period, let’s challenge all candidates to make early childhood and parenting education a New Brunswick priority.

GERRY POND is a member of BCAPI’s leadership board. This essay is the final contribution in a series of essays challenging New Brunswick’s politicians to close the education achievement gap