Words & Photography by Rafael Figueroa

24-year-old Karla Gonzalez is a stay-at-home mother of two. Her eldest is four years old and will begin pre-kindergarten in Montreal next September.

That places both her children’s educational paths directly in the crosshairs of the CAQ’s controversial new initiative to fast-track Quebec children’s journeys through the education system via ‘universal’ pre-kindergarten classes, available starting at the age of four years old.

Gonzalez told The City she isn’t against the proposal in theory but fails to see a significant advantage in early pre-kindergarten enrolment compared to the current CPE model in place (the state-subsidized network of early childhood daycares) that her son was previously enrolled in.

‘‘I am in favour [of pre-k programs] if they are focused on play and socialization,’’ she said. ‘‘However, if my boy was enrolled in a daycare today, I would not have switched him over to a preschool program. I don’t think pre-k is necessary but in my case, where he isn’t with a daycare, I think pre-k programs are a great alternative.’’

The project, known as Bill 5, was presented to the National Assembly last month and the government expects it to generate 250 new Pre-Kindergarten classes for four-year-olds across Quebec starting next Fall.

At the English Montreal School Board, the process is already underway. Beginning in September 2019, 13 new Pre-K classes will be rolled out to schools across its network. This will be in addition to the 12 government-funded Pre-K classes already in place.

The following schools within the EMSB network will offer pre-k classes as of the 2019-20 academic year: Sinclair Laird Elementary (Parc-Extension), Parkdale Elementary (St. Laurent), General Vanier Elementary (St. Leonard), Dalkeith Elementary (Anjou), Westmount Park, Gerald McShane (Montreal North), Coronation Elementary (CDN), Mackay Centre (NDG), Pierre-Elliott Trudeau (Rosemount) and Bankcroft Elementary (Plateau).

‘‘We are pleased for the new schools that we have been able to add to our list of offering pre-k for four-year-olds,’’ said EMSB Chair Angela Mancini in a statement. However, she also cautioned it would remain important the school board maintain control over where those new classrooms would be added in the coming years, citing the significant space limitation problems the board faces in West End schools.

Early screening for learning difficulties misses the point, critics say

In a statement outlining the bill, Quebec Premier François Legault emphasized ‘‘This is a new tool we are giving ourselves in order to act early, in order to quickly identify learning disabilities and help our children succeed.’’

Valérie Grenon, president of the Quebec Federation of Early Childhood Workers (FIPEQ), has come out staunchly against the proposal, stating that if that is indeed the primary goal, it is already a flawed premise.

‘‘What the Premier has emphasized the last few weeks is he wants four-year-old pre-k programs to help in the diagnosis of certain childhood learning difficulties,’’ said Grenon. ‘‘It is a great idea but you can see that it is not at four years old when that needs to be done. It is much earlier.’’

Grenon also says she is frustrated by the government’s insistence on quickly rolling out such a large-scale and costly program when the CPE network has been in place since 1997 and already targets that specific children’s age group.

‘‘We take in almost 95,000 children in CPEs. Right now, Mr. Legault, in promoting these four-year-old pre-k programs, completely devalues the profession of early childhood workers in Quebec.’’

And Grenon is far from alone. The province’s vast network of early childhood workers, educators, and technicians have been working diligently since December on the issue. Sponsored by the Quebec Council of Early Childhood Educational Services (CQSEPE) and backed by Grenon and other similar groups, a petition has been posted to the National Assembly’s website demanding the immediate end to the deployment of four-year-old universal pre-k programs and instead, reinforcement and investment into the existing CPE infrastructure and services. At the time of publication, the petition had accumulated over 30,000 signatures.

Grenon and other early childhood spokespersons are currently touring all 17 regions of Quebec, circulating physical copies of the petition as well.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire?

Jennifer Maccarone, the PLQ’s Official Opposition Critic for Families has also been emphatically opposed to the proposal since it first began making the rounds during the provincial election campaign trail last Fall. According to her, the government is moving full-steam ahead on a poorly thought-out campaign promise that was initially supposed to be a $250 million project but has since ballooned to a $700 million price tag.

I am opposed to a plan where you’re going to be taking resources out of one network that is currently suffering a labour shortage and moving them to another.

‘‘Instead of investing $700 million in infrastructure, what we need to do is invest in graduating more individuals from the university network that specialize in that type of intervention like speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, and psychologists,’’ she said. ‘‘We are in a huge deficit for all those levels of professionals in the education and daycare networks to be able to help those children who would potentially benefit from an early diagnosis.’’

Raiding an already low-staffed CPE network?

Perhaps more troubling still, explains Maccarone, is how improvised and haphazard the roll out of the program appears to be. The MNA for Westmount-Saint-Louis points to reports by Le Devoir which cited Education Minister Jean-François Roberge as saying that particularly on the island of Montreal where the shortage of teachers and educators is so salient, they would have to recruit early childhood educators from within the CPE networks in order to staff all the new pre-k classes. Those newly appointed educators would then be required to complete a one-year teaching certificate at the university level in addition to their already obtained college degrees.

‘‘I’m scared for our children,’’ said Maccarone, who prior to being elected to office last Fall was chairperson at the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board. ‘‘I’m a parent. I’m a taxpayer. I’m also an elected official and I want to be a good voice. If this was a good plan, I would stand behind it to say ‘let’s consider it’ because I’m not opposed to opposed to four-year-old pre-k. But I am opposed to a plan where you’re going to be taking resources out of one network that is currently suffering a labour shortage and moving them to another.’’

Scholars like Dr. Nathalie Rothschild, program director of Early Childhood and Elementary Education at Concordia University are cautiously optimistic but foresee such ad-hoc approaches to education policy as potentially problematic.

‘‘The government does need to be realistic when looking at where these actual classrooms are going to go, who is going to teach them, and making sure principals, teachers and school boards feel supported in implementing it,’’ she said. ‘‘Given how critical [the early years in a child’s development] are, it is important this is done right. There could be implementation challenges from a resource perspective so I think it is important to make sure those resources are available before.’’

The Legault administration was contacted to elaborate on program specifics but could not be reached in time for publication of this article.

In the long term, for parents like Gonzalez who are stuck in the middle of this policy clash, it might be some time before we can determine whether the changes will have been worthwhile. However, she maintains that giving more choice to parents earlier on in the lives of their children is never a bad thing, especially when facing the exorbitant wait times CPE enrollment services have become so notorious for.

‘‘Before taking the decision to be a stay-at-home mom, we registered our son, at a daycare,’’ she said. ‘‘The waiting time was ridiculous, almost a year without any updates.’’

‘‘But in my opinion, with pre-k programs becoming more available, that could help address that situation.’

Main Photography: Skitterphoto