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Program for children 5 and younger at risk of closure in Surrey Schools

‘Words fail me about how disappointed I am in all of this’: Allen
A program for children under the age of 5 is at risk of closure in the Surrey school district, due to Education Ministry funding not increasing in more than 15 years. (Unsplash photo)

A program in Surrey for children under the age of five to play and learn together before entering the school system may be at risk for closure, as the school board says government funding has not kept up with demand.

“This is horrible news, quite frankly, and it’s really unacceptable that the provincial government has chosen not to increase, at least maintaining, to cover some of our costs since 2008,” said Surrey school board vice chair Gary Tymoschuk.

During a presentation at the board’s regular Wednesday night meeting (March 13), trustees listened to a presentation by assistant superintendent Christy Northway, who shared the recent struggles around the school district’s StrongStart program.

The initiative is a free drop-in program for parents and caregivers to bring their children under the age of five to one of the 25 participating elementary schools in their neighbourhood to interact with other kids, learn and participate in activities. Also during that time, parents and guardians can access resources and assessments for their children if needed.

The number of families wanting to participate in the program is increasing, which has resulted in some only being able to access it two or three times a week instead of five.

“What has not increased is the budget. It has not shifted since 2008,” Northway said.

While using the budget from the district’s Ready, Set, Learn program, a separate initiative to help prepare children for Kindergarten, StrongStart was able to remain in a surplus for a few years but hit a deficit last school year, of $125,000. This deficit, Northaway said, is forecasted to increase this year also to $160,000.

The budget for Ready, Set, Learn has increased over time, Northaway said, which sits at $252,000, while StrongStart costs $32,000 for each school’s site.

Citing increasing salaries of staff and rising costs of materials, Northway said the two budgets are beginning to no longer be enough to run StrongStart.

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Including employee salaries, Northway said each school site with the program is on average, short $10,000.

“We are now at a tipping point… We recognize that operating StrongStart is no longer sustainable in Surrey. This year, we will exhaust the StrongStart budget and the Ready, Set, Learn budget in order to cover the cost.”

Because of this, the district is considering two options: either reduce the number of programs available throughout the district, or scrap it altogether.

With 23 programs at 25 schools and nearly 3,200 children registered, which increases daily, trustees outlined what a loss this program would be for the caregivers and children who rely on it.

“A lot of these schools are in areas where, because of the poverty situation, they probably aren’t going to preschool, so this is their only chance to have some preschool learning done at the school,” said chair Laurie Larsen, indicating that all of the schools running StrongStart are in central and north Surrey.

If the district looks at reducing the number of programs they run from 23, the assistant superintendent said the $10,000 they are short could be taken from the Ready, Set, Learn program and funding would still remain in that program. This is not possible with all 23 programs.

“If we’re going there anyway, why do the slow death over the course of a number of years?” Tymoschuk pondered.

“It’s really, really unfortunate and misguided that this provincial ministry at our provincial government has chosen not to keep the funding on this valuable program so we can continue to offer it.”

Trustee Terry Allen, who called StrongStart “critical,” said the Education Ministry is failing Surrey’s students.

“This is another case of government coming up with a brilliant idea and then failing to fund it,” he charged.

“Words fail me about how disappointed I am in all of this.”

Surrey District Parental Advisory Council (DPAC) added its voice Thursday afternoon to call on the provincial government to add more funding to the StrongStart program.

“Surrey families are already struggling with unknowns about the future of our students due to underfunding, catchment closures and extended days,” DPAC Acting President Anne Whitmore said in a news release.

“To now hear that our government has also been neglecting our youngest learners, where we know that they are developing the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health is unforgivable. This government is choosing to abandon our most vulnerable learners during a time when they need all the support they can get as they develop a foundation for their future.”

Instead of taking a vote on the decision for StrongStart, trustees unanimously passed a motion to send a letter to Education Minister Rachna Singh for a meeting in hopes of securing additional funding for the program.

“The province is committed to ensuring B.C.’s school districts have the resources they need to meet the needs of todays’ students, and the ministry will be meeting with the Surrey School District to understand their budget situation as they continue their work to align their budget to their strategic plan,” the ministry stated in an email to Peace Arch News.

Sobia Moman

About the Author: Sobia Moman

Sobia Moman is a news and features reporter with the Peace Arch News.
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