Catholic board’s programs for youngest take a big hit

Targets in deficit battle include literacy classes
Apr 23, 2008 Kristin Rushowy  Toronto Star

Toronto's Catholic board could axe its full-day kindergarten program – even though the government will be introducing it provincewide starting in 2010 – as part of a plan to eliminate a $14 million deficit and finally balance its budget.

Also on the chopping block are literacy programs and supports for children at a time when about two-thirds of its students meet provincial standards on reading and writing tests.

It's also possible some elementary teachers will be laid off.

While a final decision won't be made until June – after public consultations in May – chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said the Toronto Catholic District School Board is facing major budget challenges.

"We are proud (of the full-day kindergarten), and one of the concerns is how many students would we lose in schools where the program has been, where parents expect it to be there?" she said. "Does it makes sense to do that? Those are the decisions we have to make in June, but the reality is we deliver the program full-day when we receive funding for half the day."

For four years, the board has offered full-day kindergarten in seven schools, with teachers who cover the curriculum and have extra time to review and reinforce it with students. Board research shows those in the extended day have greater gains in early reading skills, vocabulary and social skills. It costs about $900,000 a year.

The board is also looking to end "Fifth Block literacy," an intensive program it developed for struggling Grades 1 and 2 students.

The board is in its final year of a three-year deficit management plan to balance its books, and LeBlanc-Miller said a recent funding announcement from the province could mean an extra $5 million or $6 million, reducing the amount of cuts necessary to about $8 million.

Carroll said layoff notices need to go out now because of collective agreements, but retirements and leaves of absences may reduce cuts.

Anthony Bellissimo, president of the Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers, said the early years of school are taking a big hit.

"It seems that when you look at the cuts, there's a reduction of only one vice-principal and very few cuts at the administration level."