Over the past decade Revelstoke has emerged as a leader in Canada when it comes to early childhood development. Last week that success was highlighted at the Celebration of Children. The Times Review looks at some of the programs offered and what Revelstoke is doing right.
It’s Thursday morning in the basement of Community Connections and Stacy Sanchez is in the midst of a playdough meltdown. Her first batch won’t hold together, so she dumps it in the trash and starts on another. Nearby, Gorette Imm is preparing healthy snacks.
Slowly, parents and children trickle into the kitchen and the playroom next door. They are there for one of two weekly PACT sessions – an opportunity for children to play and parents to socialize.
“It’s just fun, the kids love it, it’s a nice place to hang out,” says Francoise Fuhrer, a mother of two, who’s with her 14-month-old son Nicholas (her other child is in pre-school. “There’s people who might have the same issues and they share stuff. You can get a bunch of ideas from them.”
PACT, which stands for Parents and Community Together, is in it’s 10th year, according to Cathy Girling, the programs coordinator. The program came about when some parents approached Community Connections about hosting a space for them and their children to gather. The name is a play on the saying that it takes a community to raise a child.
“Our intent is to support parents in whatever they need to improve their families,” Girling told me. “The goal is to decrease parents and pre-school children’s isolation and increase their skills in parenting.”
Sanchez and Imm supervise the program and prepare healthy snacks, set up activities and provide parents with referrals. “It can look chaotic but it has intent and purpose to it,” Girling said.
PACT is one of dozens of programs in Revelstoke designed to support parents and children. Along with the others such as Strong Start, Baby Talk, Mother Goose and many more, it has helped turn Revelstoke into a leader in early childhood development, raising some of the least vulnerable children in the province. That success was celebrated last week at a ceremony at Revelstoke Secondary School that was attended by several hundred people.
For Jeff Acton, a father of two, the PACT sessions provide an opportunity for his kids to play and for him to meet other parents. “It’s nice to just talk to people about what your kids are doing, what their kids are doing,” he said. “Just to know that being a parent is hard for lots of people and you’re not necessarily doing anything wrong.”***
“Our hope is that the charter is used to challenge all of us to create a community in which the best interests of children are a primary concern for all of us,” Tracy Spannier, the co-ordinator of the Early Childhood Development (ECD) Committee, told the many people in attendance.
The night began on the cutest note possible, with dozens of children singing the Wheels on the Bus and The Itsy, Bitsy Spider, complete with all the hand actions. After that, Paige Mackenzie and Kayley Lowey sang Love You Like a Love Song together and Caleb Guenther read the poem Tiger Tiger by William Blake.
The entertainment wrapped up with the band of Hailey Christie-Hoyle (singer), Tettey Tetteh (Keyboard), Mackenzie Mallett (Bass), and Will MacDonald (drums), performing Try, Try, Try by Feist.
When it came time for the official business, many people left but many stayed as well. Spannier introduced the signing of the Children’s Charter by explaining what it was about and how it was developed.
She said it was the result of a year’s work by a dedicated committee of early childhood workers, business groups, politicians and others.
“We wanted to create a document that was focused, clear and concise,” Spannier said. “The convention and our charter recognize that parents have a primary role in bringing up children and highlights the defence of the family’s role in children’s life. They are the children’s most important teachers, role models and guides.
She continued: “Our hope is that the charter is used to challenge all of us to create a community in which the best interests of children are a primary concern for all of us.”
The charter was signed by more 30 people, representing the city, school board, teachers, parent groups, business groups, numerous organizations and more.
Afterwards, the Family Friendly Business and Family Friendly Workplace awards were handed out by Linda Chell. Mountain Goodness won the former and the Revelstoke Credit Union won the latter.
The crowd dwindled a little more for the presentation by Spannier and school district superintendent Anne Cooper. They told the story of Revelstoke’s success with ECD. It was a presentation they had already given at conferences in Kelowna, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal – a testament to the attention Revelstoke is receiving in the early learning community.
The story Spannier and Cooper told was one of cooperation and partnership between a number of organizations. They also stressed the importance of active parents in raising children.
Spannier went over the importance of ECD and how the early years can impact development as an adult. “The research now shows us that any of the challenges in adult society, including mental health problems, obesity, heart disease, criminality, competency in literacy and numeracy, all have their roots in the early years,” she said. “These quality experiences early on will pay off in children’s development in years to come.”
In Revelstoke, the ECD Committee first formed more than a decade ago, however for a period in the early 2000s, the committee did not meet formally. In 2003 the Success by Six program spurred the committee to begin meeting monthly again and they looked at what programs existed in the community and what was missing.
“We recognized quite early on that it was an excellent opportunity to learn more about our community,” said Spannier.
An Early Childhood Development master plan was completed in November 2005. The various groups involved also started working on ways to partner together and expand the funding available. “We returned to common vision and common goals that we had, which was supporting families and children in our community.”
There was also a focus on improving Revelstoke’s results with the Early Development Instrument, a tool developed by the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) that measures vulnerability amongst children when they enter kindergarten. When the first wave of results came out early last decade, 19.1 per cent of Revelstoke’s children were rated as vulnerable, below the provincial average. The focus switched to helping out those children who were vulnerable, Spannier said.
School district superintendent Anne Cooper was candid for her part of the presentation. She admitted that the district first got involved as a way of filling space in some of its empty schools. Money was the primary concern and she wasn’t concerned with early learning.
When the second wave of EDI results came in, Revelstoke improved to 12 per cent vulnerable, while the rest of the province did worse. “We were shocked, truly. More importantly the people at HELP were shocked,” Cooper said. “We were pretty pleased that our hard work was paying off, some of our programs were working and we were on the right track.”
Spannier and Cooper went over the number of programs offered in Revelstoke: Strong Start, PACT, Baby Talk, the aquatic centre, Leap Land, a number of child care centres supplemented by a number of at-home care providers; resource libraries, the children’s calendar and more.
“What we feel we’re able to do now is by being so efficient and economical is that we can deliver personalized services to children and be really responsive to families,” said Cooper.
When the third wave of results came in, Revelstoke scored an astonishing 6.7 per cent. The fourth wave of results were released in the fall and 10 per cent of children were rated vulnerable.
Cooper also noted that the results were being sustained as children went up through school. More than 90 per cent of grade four students met or exceeded the provincial standards on the Foundational Skills Assessment tests for the past three years. Equably notable is the fact only four children were rated as having behaviour problems this year, down from 38 in 2004-05.
“The face of our primary kids has changed significantly from a decade ago,” said Cooper, adding it has also meant the district has been able to close down programs designed to support these students and use the money elsewhere.
The future is also looking bright, with the province’s first Neighbourhood Learning Centre scheduled to open next year. It will bring all of the city’s early childhood programs under one roof.
Revelstoke’s success has attracted attention elsewhere. In the audience last night were three women from Nelson who were there to hear what Revelstoke was doing.
“We’ve been really interested in the Revelstoke results on their EDI,” said Lorri Fehr, the district principal of innovative learning services for the Kootenay Lake School District. “We’ve been hearing about the way your community works amazingly well together for kids.”
The following morning I went down to the old Farwell Elementary school where the Stepping Stones day care is located. I arrived just as a Baby Talk class was starting. Thirteen mothers, one dad and 13 children were seated in a circle as Karen Schneider and Kendra Kent gave a class on infant massage.
After that, I biked up the road to Mountain View Elementary, where the Strong Start program is held. Revelstoke was the first place in B.C. to launch the program, which provides a structured play place for parents and pre-school children.
On the surface it looked to be much like PACT but several parents that go to both told me that Strong Start was more structured, with set times for different activities.
“This one really helps encourage parent participation,” said Tabatha Jones, who runs the program. “This is more of an early learning centre.”
In the basement of Mountain View is the Leap Land playground – an indoor play space that is open to the community. It was started after parents requested a place to take their children during the winter months.
Cynthia Gallant, who was there with her 21-month-old son Henry, said she was extremely grateful for the program. “I met a really fantastic support group of parents with children the same age,” she said. As for the kids: “Its a different environment for them to explore and learn different things,” she added. “Everything is set up and geared towards children development.”
The last person I spoke to was Roy Jones, Tabatha’s husband, who was there with their seven-month old daughter Journey. Roy has three older children from a previous marriage and he said programs like Strong Start weren’t available when he was raising them.
“You get to learn with them and most fathers don’t get to do that,” he said. “I didn’t with my first group of kids.”