||Toronto First Duty: Blueprint for early learning and child care services
By Kerry McCuaig, communications manager, Toronto First Duty
Toronto First Duty Project breaks new ground and crosses traditional boundaries to bring the comprehensive vision of the Early Years Study to life for children and families in Toronto. In this report, Kerry McCuaig describes the model, its goals and the "powerhouse" partnership behind an integrated learning and child care initiative designed with children and their parents at the centre.
what he likes best and the answer is ‘school'.
Indeed, Mahmoud looks like any other five year old
off to spend two and half hours in one of the city's
kindergarten programs. But Mahmoud is going to a school
with a difference. He's among the first to attend
the Bruce/WoodGreen Early Learning Centre at Bruce
Public School in east Toronto. There he spends a day
packed with music, stories, reading and math games,
crafts and outdoor play, and digs into a full hot
lunch and tasty snacks. Meanwhile his mom, Entesar
Adulwahed, is down the hall in a colourful room filled
with adult-sized easy chairs and children's
Entesar, the mother of four boys ranging in age from
3 months to 7 years, credits the centre with her ‘sanity'.
"At home all day with the children I was stressed
and depressed. Here the children spend time doing
things they love, and I have the support of other
parents and the professional advice of the staff."
The Adulwahed children are among the 1250 city youngsters
under six taking part in Toronto First Duty, an ambitious
project designed to combine the three pillars of early
learning and care – regulated child care, kindergarten
and parenting supports – into a single, accessible
At first glance, a Toronto First Duty room doesn't
look much different than a traditional kindergarten
or child care setting, but behind the scenes a great
deal more is happening. Teachers, early childhood
educators, educational assistants and parenting workers
form a staff team to create a learning environment
drawing on the best of the kindergarten curriculum,
early childhood education and parenting supports.
The child does not bounce from child care to kindergarten
and back again, but instead, spends her day in a consistent
environment, with the same adults, with the same expectations.
The design responds to two pressing social needs --
giving children the ‘smart start' they
need for school and for life while at the same time
supporting parents to do their job as parents as they
pursue work, training or the care of other family
It's a place where everyone in the family learns.
Toddler Omaar was jealous of the attention his mom
had to give new baby Osman. "Here I can relax
and breastfeed the baby," says Entesar. "Omaar
is too busy with his friends and activities to mind.
The staff have advised me how to deal with his anger
and I can see how much his self-esteem has improved."
The goal of Toronto First Duty is to offer families
a program where they can enrol their child for a part,
full or extended day. Children participate in age-appropriate
activities designed to support their cognitive, physical,
social and emotional development. Parents are encouraged
to take part by participating in parenting classes,
attending parent/child playgroups or joining their
child at the beginning or end of the day for reading
circle or other activities. Program staff link families
to community health and social service supports as
required. Additional programs can be offered on site;
public health for example, provides pre and postnatal
Centred in five sites attached to neighbourhood schools,
Toronto First Duty is not a "one-off pilot project,"
says Toronto Councillor and Children's Advocate,
Olivia Chow. "We intend to use our on-the-ground
expertise to provide senior governments with a blueprint
of how to provide early years services effectively."
The project also addresses the shortcomings of provincial
government policy which has focused on parent information
while ignoring families' needs for quality child
"Ontario's approach has been to layer
yet another program onto those already in the community
at the same time as it erodes the foundation services
– child care and kindergarten. The result has
been increased confusion with less service. Information
for parents is useful, but even the best of parents
cannot compensate for overcrowded kindergarten classes
and the absence of quality child care," says
The project has received the endorsement of some heavy
child advocacy hitters. Dr. Fraser Mustard told CBC
radio that First Duty "got it right" when
it came to early years services. His co-chair for
the Early Years Study, Margaret Norrie McCain, describes
the Toronto First Duty project as, "a culmination
of our work. These are the child development and parenting
centres we recommended be available for every child."
Lori Gray spent 15 years as an early childhood educator
in a traditional child care program before volunteering
for the project. "ECE, teachers and parenting
workers share the same goals and achieve the same
outcomes, although our methods differ. It has been
a wonderful experience to learn from one another as
we incorporate the best from each discipline into
a single practice."
Gray's teaching team is comprised of two teachers,
two educational assistants and another early childhood
educator. Together they plan and deliver the program
for about 50 children. They are able to provide an
integrated curriculum while still meeting the Ministry
of Education's kindergarten requirements and
the guidelines of the Day Nurseries Act. Added to
the mix is the special expertise the parenting worker
brings in working with parents. Not surprisingly,
Gray says her greatest reward has come from the children.
"We have witnessed behaviour improvements as
the children respond to a more structured day and
become familiar with the routines. They really enjoy
coming to the centre."
Parents say the benefits even spill over into the
home. Mealtimes in the Adulwahed household could be
bedlam with three young boys running around. "Here
they've learned table manners," their
Cost of the programs varies. At Bruce, Adulwahed pays
$100 a month for the full day program for Mahmoud.
There is no fee for parenting and playgroup programs.
Funding from the partners allows for service expansion
and an affordable fee structure.
Behind Toronto First Duty is a powerhouse partnership:
- The Toronto District School Board is the largest
in the country and has long been a leader in kindergarten
and parenting supports.
- The schools associated with the project are:
Bruce Public School, Corvette Public School, Queen
Victoria Public School, Secord Public School and
J.R. Wilcox Community School.
The intent of the project is to demonstrate to the public
and to policymakers how existing early childhood and
family programs can be transformed from the current
disjointed patchwork into a solid foundation. The foundation
would provide a base for new public investments to build
a system of early learning and child care.
- The City of Toronto is the systems manager for
over 800 child care and family resource programs
and a Canadian pioneer in tracking child outcomes.
- The sponsoring community agencies that manage
the projects have deep roots in their neighbourhoods:
The Child Development Institute, (formerly known as The Crèche and Earlscourt); East
York/East Toronto Family Resources; Macaulay Child
Development Centre; Not Your Average Daycare Community
Inc; and, Woodgreen Community Centre.
- The auto companies and Canadian Auto Workers
Union bring their important labour/business perspective
in providing workplace child care
- The Atkinson Charitable Foundation kick started
the process, just one of its many initiatives for
children, families and social justice.
- The teachers' unions participate and
- Human Resources Development Canada is helping
to fund the research.
For parents, it takes the guesswork out of where to
go to find the supports they need. "We need to
build ‘institutions of trust' for families
with young children," says Professor Dan Keating
who is part of the team from Toronto and Ryerson universities
heading the research. He uses public education as a
comparison: "When a child turns six, parents don't
wonder where to go to help the child read and write.
Schools are the community centres that perform this
function. There is no similar institution for children
during their early years."
Sustainability is an issue as the main partners grapple
with shrinking resources. Atkinson executive director
Charles Pascal points to some openings: both the provincial
opposition parties have made a commitment to early education
in their platforms; recent federal/provincial agreements
on child development and care open up new resources.
acknowledges that investments in the early years provide
enormous payoffs but community agencies and local governments
have little leeway to experiment. This brings us to
who is missing from the partnership," says Pascal. "It
is not the job of business or foundations to fund essential
services. Only senior governments have the resources
and the responsibility to make universal early learning
and care a reality. We are doing our part, we expect
the compelling example of Toronto First Duty, will prompt
them to do theirs."
First Duty plans to show how this can happen. During
the three-year project the partners intend to answer
some important questions:
would a universal early learning and care system
will it combine the best of child development, early
education and parenting supports?
professional skills does it require?
would it operate?
can existing community resources
be better organized to serve as a strong foundation
for new public investments?
experiences at the sites being captured by the research
team will provide valuable lessons on how to respond
to the challenges inherent in combining services with
different cultures and legislative frameworks. It
will be looking at how to establish accountability
mechanisms that support the best
use of public funds while improving outcomes for families
the end of the process, policymakers will have a
blueprint for change containing a governance framework,
curriculum and human resource model, monitoring and
accountability tools and a communication strategy.
Children, in turn, will benefit from a "smart start"
and their parents will benefit from a system of flexible
At a Glance
First Duty Project
learning and child care program for every child that
At the same time as it
- Supports the healthy development of children
- Supports parents to work or study
- Supports parents in their parenting role
Toronto, Toronto District School Board, Atkinson Charitable
Foundation, Canadian Autoworkers Union Child Care
Fund; Human Resources Development Canada (research),
Toronto Public Health, the Ontario Teachers Federation
of Ontario, the Elementary Teachers of Toronto. The
lead agencies for the sites: Not Your Average Daycare
Community Inc.; The Child Development Institute, (formerly known as The Crèche and Earlscourt); Macaulay Child Development Centre; Woodgreen
Community Centre and East York/East Toronto Family
The schools associated with the project are:
Secord Public School; Corvette Public School; Queen Victoria Public School;
J.R. Wilcox Community School and Bruce Public School.
are each represented by a decision-making member on
a steering committee that oversees the project. The
lead agencies, school principal and participating
community agencies are responsible for the management
of the sites.
First Duty has a budget of $5-million over three years
to support service integration and expansion, research
McCain, M. & Mustard, F. (April 1999). The
Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain. (PDF)
Resources and Links
First Duty Web Site
McCuaig is a researcher and consultant with Better Child
Care Education. She represents the Atkinson Charitable
Foundation Early Years Panel on the Steering Committee.