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The Inverness Community Leadership Centre in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is edging closer to realization. A former coal mine office is about to be transformed through a $2 million renovation into Nova Scotia’s first “children’s zone” development initially housing two innovative local ventures, the Early Years Co-op and the Inverness Cottage Workshop for intellectually disabled adults, with plans to add an entrepreneurship centre. In it’s conception, the little venture is actually inspired more by American than Canadian precedents.

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Campaigning to eradicate child poverty and promoting universal social support programs remain the well-worn Canadian policy approaches to “closing the income gap.” Community reconstruction in Inverness is markedly different because it begins and ends with children, youth and families. Much like glittery American ventures such as Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods, it taps into the enormous, largely underutilized potential of community-based, child-centred alternatives.

The ambitious project in Inverness, a struggling Cape Breton town of 2,000 souls, is anything but an overnight success. It’s clearly the brainchild of a true visionary, Jim Mustard, a messianic Town Councillor with Early Child Development in his DNA. He is, after all, the son of the late Dr. Fraser Mustard, the world renowned McMaster University pediatrician famous for promoting maternal health and early childhood education.

Mustard was at his passionate best at the March 2015 Dalhousie Shift Rural Symposium. “We need to embrace children from birth,” he said, “and if we don’t provide Early Years programs now, there will be problems down the road. If we make our children the North Star, then we’ll stay on track.”

An Early Years Co- Op was only the first step for Mustard. He’s out to rebuild an entire community. “The idea is to generate a sense of community. It needs to feel like a kitchen table gathering with people just hanging out,” he remarked in December 2013. ”When you think of the expertise that will appear in an informal setting it will trump all the rest of it.”

Early learning is gradually advancing in Nova Scotia, by baby steps, and it is vital to the longer-term social regeneration agenda. Since the 2012 Canadian Pediatrics Society (CPS) report, the province has come onside. For every dollar spent on the early childhood years, governments now see a $4 to $6 return to society in terms of more productive youth and reduced expenditures for juvenile justice, jails and social assistance.

Child and family poverty remains a stark reality in Nova Scotia, especially outside of Halifax. Since 2000, the target year for the eradication of child poverty, Dr. Lesley Frank of Acadia University reports that the child poverty rate (22.2%) has barely budged, in spite of modest increases in the minimum wage and child support programs.

Children, youth and families in lower income homes bore the brunt of the brutal 2008-10 economic recession. One in 3 children (32.6%) in Cape Breton are living in poverty, compared to 24.4% in Kentville, 24.3% in New Glasgow, 21.8% in Truro, and 18.6% in Halifax. While child poverty statistics are hard to find in Yarmouth,  there’s a steady demand for shelter at SHYFT Youth Services, responding to the needs of homeless youth.

Most of the remedial measures bandied about — legislating a living wage, introducing the Guaranteed Basic Income, or province-wade subsidized child care — are well known. Most often they are proposed by Canadian child welfare activists committed to restoring the diminished and porous social safety net.

Establishing children’s zones and embarking upon social reconstruction street-by-street are still new and mysterious here in Nova Scotia and in other regions of Canada. One notable exception is the Toronto District School Board, where, since 2009, the TDSB’s Inner City Advisory Committee has assessed and ranked its neediest or “priority” school communities. That Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) identified some 77 school neighbourhoods where “children from lower income families” face “significant barriers” to ” achieving high educational outcomes.”

The Toronto LOI project is a promising first step, openly acknowledging that not all public school communities are equal. It can also be an extremely valuable indicator of where a school system needs to target its educational resources. The Toronto board, however, is less clear in how the LOI is actually being used. Beyond reporting in 2014 that LOI is utilized to “help allocate staff and other resources” it’s hard to identify visible, targeted programmatic initiatives.

Looking south to the United States, the initial glow surrounding Geoffrey Canada’s signature project, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has faded as time and student results tone down the somewhat unrealistic transformative expectations. While Canada’s project falls short of being “The Harlem Miracle,” it has produced measurable gains for kids living in one of North America’s most disadvantaged urban districts.

Now that Geoffrey Canada has stepped down as CEO of Harlem Chidren’s Zone (HCZ), more objective assessments of its success are appearing. Although they focus on HCZ, the appraisals may well apply to the replica projects supported by President Barack Obama in 20 different cities across the United States. Already, it is clear that allocating $60 million to the Promise Neighborhood projects in cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, will be insufficient to duplicate HCZ that required over $200 million to make a dent in schools serving 8,000 children and 6,000 adults across 97 blocks of Harlem.

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Critics of Geoffrey Canada and his HCZ tend to miss the whole point of his massive social reconstruction project. Through his work with HCZ’s precursor, Rheedlen Centres for Children and Families, Canada learned that child and family poverty was not amenable to eradication when projects focused on only one dimension of the problem. Establishing charter schools alone would not work without addressing the underlying social determinants of chronic student underperformance: early childhood development, housing, and health care.  His ambitious initiative, as MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli recently noted, demonstrated how “ambitious community programs…. paired with aggressive school reform efforts” offer the best hope to “close the achievement gap” and revitalize whole communities.

American Children’s Zones, it turns out, have rather surprisingly much in common with Jim Mustard’s Inverness Community project. It too is a community-based social reconstruction venture that has the potential to change that dynamic. What Geoffrey Canada undertook in Harlem, is just the Inverness project on a gigantic scale. One look at that little Cape Breton project is enough to awaken anyone ready to think “outside the box” about the potential for child-centred models of community re-development.

What’s the real purpose of Children’s Zones in both inner city neighbourhoods and small communities? Does child-centred community redevelopment still have the potential to break the cycle of child and family poverty? If so, what’s standing in the way of its realization?

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