Toronto First Duty: Integrating Kindergarten, Childcare, and Parenting Support to Help Diverse Families Connect to Schools

Article excerpt

The focus of this article is a research and development project underway in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The project is Toronto First Duty, reflecting that the "first duty of a state is to see that every child born therein shall be well-housed, clothed, fed, and educated, till it attain years of discretion," according to 19th century British social reformer John Rushkin. This quote provided the title for the city's strategy for supporting young children through six years of age.

Toronto First Duty's innovation lies in its approach of integrating early childhood services in a school-as-hub model through local collaboration among professional groups and agencies. The primary services are Kindergarten, childcare, and parenting supports with child health, preschool readiness, family mental health, special needs services, recreation, family literacy, and other programs included at most sites.

The project is also designed to inform higher-level policies at the municipal and provincial levels. It is currently operating in five pilot sites in the Toronto District School Board; the sites include the local school and a large group of community partner agencies. An infrastructure system to support the project came together through the City of Toronto's Municipal government, the school board, and the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which supports social causes such as early learning and care.

Context

Toronto is a city of many cultures, religions, and languages. In the Toronto region, more than 50% of children arrive in Kindergarten speaking a language other than English, which is typically the language of instruction in Canadian schools. There is a large number of recent immigrants from many countries in Toronto and its surround. Regions in the Toronto area often cluster into second language (ESL) groups; some examples are Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, and French, Canada's other national language.

Not only is the English language unfamiliar to many children and their families, but so is the culture. Negotiating the "culture of schooling" represents one of many transitions for these families. Given the increasing evidence that the preschool years are critical for setting in motion the developmental trajectories for developmental health and well-being (Keating & Hertzman, 1999; McCain & Mustard, 1999; Corter & Pelletier, 2004), it is particularly important to support recently immigrated families during this period, since being disconnected to schools and services creates a vulnerable group of "have nots"-those who have not had the benefit of good preschool learning and care along with supports to families.

Thus, the transition to school is important from the standpoint of the knowledge, skills, and experiences that children bring to school and the supports that are in place to optimize children's potential. Research has shown that as a result of factors such as recent immigration, language status, and socioeconomic hurdles, many young children begin school at significant disadvantage (Swick & McKnight. 1989). Neither they, nor their families, nor the school system, are prepared for this critical transition. Related to the transition to school is the issue of access to services for childcare, health, recreation, and other social needs.

In Toronto, new families may find themselves unable to find good quality childcare, to get referrals for child health issues, or to access recreational programs such as athletics and libraries. Even families who are fortunate enough to "get in" may encounter a system, or non-system, of fragmented services that require access through different routes. Many are left without access or give up trying. In order to help these diverse families connect to schools and community services, intervention programs are needed to reach out to these many groups and to make the school a "hub" of community activity and access to resources. …