Leveling The Playing Field

When the Manitoba Open Innovation Challenge launched in late 2017, we asked Manitobans to give us their most innovative ideas on how we solve Manitoba’s low rankings for childhood literacy and numeracy. But even we were surprised when one group responded with… don’t try to solve it at all.

That’s not to say Manitoba’s provincial ranking of 8th and 9th for literacy and numeracy respectively (source: Organization for Economic Co-Operation & Development) doesn’t need to be addressed. It’s simply that the team at Seven Oaks School Division, like several other groups, felt the rankings were symptoms of a broader issue.

“Literacy and numeracy scores are 100% linked to social realities,” said Cathy Horbas, Coordinator for the Seven Oaks Early Years Coalition and Divisional Teacher Team Leader for Early Years in Seven Oaks School Division. “We understand that rankings and scores are important, but I’ve done my share of home visits where there isn’t a single toy or book in the entire house. This isn’t an academic issue, it’s a social issue.”

“There could be transportation challenges, language barriers, poverty or maybe mental health issues,” said Horbas. “There are literally hundreds of reasons why families may not be able access preschool programs. If we can solve that, school performance will improve across the board, but as a byproduct of addressing the core issues.”

With that direction in mind, the team developed their Challenge submission based on Early Development Instrument data that shows children who are not connected to community preschool programming are at a much greater risk of underperforming in school down the road.

So the real question became – why are those families not connecting with preschool programs and what can be done to help them?

“The goal is to try and remove social barriers and take preschool to the family where they are,” says Horbas. “But we have to let the family set the agenda, so we can’t determine what that delivery system looks like – the family does.”

To that end, Horbas says preschool supports could be delivered by people with a variety of skill sets and backgrounds, even through non-educator resource workers who may already have a connection with the family.

“The important thing to remember is that it’s not about what works for educators and government, it needs to be about the people who need the help,” says Horbas. “We realize that taking an individualized approach may sound daunting but the only way this issue will be solved is by focusing on one family at a time.”

The home-based preschool support would be primarily done by supplying families with guidance tailored directly to them and their backgrounds, as well as physical tools such as books, toys and games.

“Young children learn through play, and those who aren’t able to access preschool programs may not be getting those same opportunities,” said Horbas. “Our submission for the challenge was really about overcoming barriers and giving all children equal access to early-years learning.”

As the Challenge now heads into the prototyping phase, North Forge Mentor, Suzanne Braun, is hoping Winnipeg’s incredibly generous corporate community will be able to help move things forward with valuable donations.

 “Donations of new or used toys, books and games would go a huge way to getting this project off the ground,” said Braun. “We believe this kind of approach can be really effective and we don’t want cost to become an obstacle, so community support will be key.”

Any corporations or individuals wanting to donate items to the program, can do so by dropping off items at any North Forge location or by contacting Suzanne Braun ([email protected]) to arrange for pickup before September 15, 2018.

Click here to learn more about what you can donate.