Catholic board supports ‘Best Start’ Eyeing additions at two schools

The Northwest Catholic District School Board on Tuesday night passed a motion to officially support the province’s new “Best Start” program, and is considering additions to two schools in order to meet its requirements.
Barb Buffet, “Best Start” co-ordinator for the Kenora District Services Board, provided the local Catholic board with a power point presentation on the initiative.
The program is a large one—encompassing many different service providers and levels of government.
“This initiative is gigantic,” noted Dryden trustee John Borst. “There’s an entire philosophical change going on, and that’s what’s going to have an impact on education.”
“Best Start” aims to provide care and support for children and their families, from pre-natal care to Grade 1, so children are ready to succeed in the school system.
Implemented in stages, the program eventually will lead to the creation of “neighbourhood early learning and care hubs” to provide child care and parenting programs, as well as screening, assessment, and treatment for speech and language disorders.
For now, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services is giving District Social Services Administration Boards the authority to disburse funding to create additional child care spaces for children in junior and senior kindergarten.
Ideally, the ministry would like to see these spaces created in schools so that parents can drop their child off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon—even if the child only attends school for a half-day, or every other day.
The Rainy River DSSAB will receive $4.4 million over the next three years to implement the program and create 95 new child care spaces. About $853,000 of that will go to the local Catholic board to create 22 child care spaces in the district by March 31, 2008.
Because the board also has two schools in the Kenora district, the funding will be split between the north and south ends of its catchment area, with about $547,000 of the money going to the north end for 44 new child care spaces.
In order to accommodate these numbers, the board has had plans drawn up for additions to St. Michael’s School here and St. Joseph’s School in Dryden.
“We don’t have any excess space,” Superintendent of Business Chris Howarth said of the two schools.
He added Sacred Heart School in Sioux Lookout already has a day care centre attached to it, and that Our Lady of the Way School in Stratton may have enough space already to accommodate a small day care.
At St. Michael’s, the drawings include a new 910 sq. ft. play and activity area, along with a bathroom, coat room, and storage area, as well as an outdoor play area.
The addition is planned for the northeast corner of the building.
The expansion at St. Joseph’s includes an 895 sq. ft. activity room, along with a coat room, bathroom, and new staff room, as well as indoor and outdoor storage and an outdoor play area.
The addition would be located on the southwest corner of that building, closest to the existing kindergarten room.
Howarth noted because JK students only attend half-days at St. Joseph’s, students who attend class in the morning easily could cross the hall to go to day care in the afternoon, and vice-versa.
This would not be possible at St. Michael’s, where kindergarten students attend all-day, every day.
In terms of money, Howarth estimated building costs at about $200 per square foot. The total price tag of the additions at both schools is estimated at $1.28 million.
With the ministry providing only $853,000, the local board would have to cover the remaining $426,000.
Howarth said the board does have the funds in reserve, but added he has appealed to the ministry for more funding. He noted the estimates, as well as the drawings, are preliminary and subject to change.
Timelines on the “Best Start” program are short, with projects proceeding to tender in the winter and being awarded in the spring, with a proposed completion date of Oct. 31, 2006.
Board chair Gerry Rousseau expressed some concern about how providing child care in schools would affect existing municipally-run facilities.
Buffet said existing child care facilities are being included in the decision-making process. Most day care facilities in the Kenora District, for instance, have waiting lists, she noted.
“Best Start” will help get some of those children off the lists and into care, she argued. It also will provide more subsidized spaces for families who cannot afford the cost.
So far, discussions in Rainy River District have included the Rainy River District School Board, the Mine Centre District School Area Board, the Atikokan Roman Catholic Separate School Board, le Conseil scolaire du district du Grand Nord de l’Ontario, and the Northwestern Health Unit, along with the Catholic board, the Rainy River DSSAB, and the ministry.
Anyone who does not want to participate in the program has the option of refusing, Buffet noted.
“If we don’t go ahead with this, we know the public co-terminus boards are going to go ahead with it and we’ll lose enrolment,” Howarth warned.
When the board voted on the motion to support the program, First Nations trustee Ralph Bruyere abstained, citing his concern for the effect “Best Start” would have on the Aboriginal “Head Start” program here, run by the United Native Friendship Centre.
Similar to the new initiative, “Head Start” helps to prepare children—both aboriginal and non-aboriginal—to enter the school system.
“I feel more comfortable not voting on the subject until I know how they feel about it,” he said of that program’s administrators.
Meanwhile, anyone interested in learning more about the “Best Start” program is encouraged to attend a public meeting at Robert Moore School on Thursday night (Oct. 20) at 7 p.m.