Free Strong Start program for preschoolers expands to West End

Strong Start, a provincially funded, free program for children under six and their parents, is expanding with a new afternoon program in New Westminster’s West End. The program is a gentle introduction to school for preschoolers through play-based learning.

We’ve written about Strong Start here before. The Cole’s Notes version of that post: Strong Start is awesome.

The new Strong Start centre will open March 29 at Connaught Heights Elementary, at 2201 London St. in the city’s West End. Strong Start will share space in the school with New Westminster Parks, Culture & Rec’s long-running Tiny Tots preschool program.

Among the three programs, there should be a time to suit every parent/child schedule. The new program at Connaught will be open 12:30-3:30pm, Monday to Friday. Meanwhile, the program will continue to operate in Sapperton at McBride Elementary every weekday from 9am-12pm, and in Queensborough at Queen Elizabeth Elementary on Monday and Friday from 9am-12pm and Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday from 4-7pm.

Strong Start follows the regular school schedule, which means it is closed on professional development days and school holidays including spring break (which is this week).

Montessori, French Immersion consultation on ‘options’ meaningless

The school district is currently gathering feedback on a series of “options” for where to locate New Westminster’s programs of choice (French Immersion and Montessori).  The deadline is tomorrow, and I haven’t yet written in my opinion because I’m not sure what good it will do.

The author of the report, Sandra Pace, has been very careful to say “I’m not making recommendations, I’m just presenting options.” Yet based on the information I saw at the Tweedsmuir presentation of Pace’s report, there are good reasons why this review is going on. It is dishonest for the district to ask parents to comment on all these “options” as though they are all equally viable.

The locations of the programs of choice impacts the district’s efforts to balance enrolment at our schools. For example, Tweedsmuir, a “triple-track” school with Montessori, French Immersion and a “regular’ program, is overpopulated and surrounded by portables. Down the road and still in the West End, Connaught is practically empty. An easy way to solve the discrepancy on paper is to move one of the programs of choice from Tweeds (almost certainly Montessori) over to Connaught, and presto! Connaught gets a boost in enrolment and some of the pressure is off Tweeds.

But talk to the Montessori and EFI parents at Tweeds, not to mention those of us with preschool kids who chose this neighbourhood in part because Tweedsmuir is a triple track school, and it’s clear many if not most Tweedsmuir parents would not support moving Montessori to Connaught. The same follows for other schools in the district. No one wants to see kids uprooted from their school.

The district admits that most parents say they don’t want to see programs moved from their current schools. Does the district really think that parents would choose fewer options for their kids at the schools they attend? And if they know what we’re going to say, why are they asking us to bother sending in feedback forms?

Just be honest about it: if we need to move programs of choice, so provide us with the recommended options and tell us why. If we don’t need to, then why raise it at all?

It’s a waste of time to ask parents to reiterate what you already know: we don’t want the schools who have these programs now to lose them. If you think they should be moved, make the case for it. Give us real choices, not fairytale “options” that you can’t really consider given the budget and space constraints in this district. For the feedback to be meaningful, parents must be aware of the district-wide repercussions of these decisions.

Perhaps the idea is that this public consultation will offer some measure of transparency in the process of moving programs of choice, but I have trouble seeing how this feedback process will do anything other than inform trustees which schools’ parents will protest most loudly about these changes. And that’s a cowardly way to make hard choices.

Strong Start a haven for preschoolers (and their mums)

A few times a week, I pack the kids across town from our home in the West End to Strong Start over at McBride Elementary in Sapperton. Wesley love, love, LOVES to go to “school” and I love, love, LOVE that it’s both free and fun for all of us.

Wesley at play in the StrongStart sandbox. Photo: Briana Tomkinson.
Wesley at play in the StrongStart sandbox. Photo: Briana Tomkinson.

Strong Start is a free, provincially funded, parent-participation preschool prep program for babies and children under five. It’s a great way for parents and caregivers to get the kids out of the house and socializing with other children while also getting preschoolers a small taste of school routine.

There are currently two Strong Start centres in New Westminster: McBride in Sapperton(9am-12pm Monday-Friday)  and Queen Elizabeth Elementary in Queensborough (9am-12pm Monday & Friday; Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday 4-7pm). A third centre is planned to open in the West End at the end of March, at Connaught Heights Elementary (drop-in times haven’t yet been announced).

A typical Strong Start day begins and ends with free play in a room full of toys, art supplies, books and costumes. Sandwiched in the middle is a simple “school” routine: clean-up, snack, gym, and circle time.

I can’t say enough about how awesome it is. I can’t even pick a favourite activity. My son adores the free play, but I think the snack/gym/circle routine is really cool and good for him to experience.

The snacks are healthy and yummy, typically including fresh fruit pieces, cheerios and fishy crackers with water to drink. Gym is a lifesaver during the cold and rainy winter months. Parents and kids trek over to the school gymnasium and the little ones run wild with bouncy balls, hockey sticks, wiffle balls and hula hoops. And during circle time, Wesley not only gets to hear a story and play some silly circle games, but I also get to learn a few new tunes & tricks to deploy when he gets too squirrelly at home.

I also appreciate that the Strong Start teachers have no fear of messy activities. My son can choose to be up to his elbows in flour, mash shaving cream all over a table, shake glitter all over a picture, mush around a goopy cornstarch-powered paste or cut construction paper into teeny-tiny pieces – all things I’d been a little afraid to try at home!

Plus, while all this is going on, parents, grandparents and babysitters can enjoy coffee or tea and commiserate about the crazy things small children do. Of all the kid activities I’ve tried, Strong Start has been the best environment for meeting other local parents. The only downside is that the program is so good that it’s very popular (and therefore can get so busy that it can be overwhelming).

I’ve got to give the B.C. Government, our local school district and the others behind this program full props. It’s amazing, and I’m so happy to see it expanding here in New West. In my opinion, it would be a worthy addition to every neighbourhood school. Then, kids could actually attend the Strong Start at the school they will enter in kindergarten, which could go a long way to relieving kids’ (and parents’) anxiety on the first full day of school.

The BC Election Results Roll In.

I returned home recently from casting my ballots for the Referendum on Electoral Reform and for the provincial election. Passing a ‘save our schools’ sign near the parking lot of Connaught Heights Elementary School, we were greeted warmly by our fellow citizens and after a short paperwork check, we voted. I am one of those kooks that really like voting and now as I write, my wife and I are glued to our radios and computers, absorbing the returns (none yet) as they come in.

One point that struck me was the truth or falsity of the claim that a vote for the governing party is a wise move for a riding. The theory goes thus: if your riding has an MLA or an MP that is part of the governing party, your voice is more likely to be heard. Looking over the last 2 election cycles here in British Columbia, I don’t know if that is true. In our province, it is the opposition MLAs are able to fight for injustices, roil and debate in the legislature and generally cause a ‘hullabaloo’ on behalf of the constituency.

Think of the Liberal party discipline: write a questionable letter, you’re out. Speak up against established party doctrine: you’re out, or side-lined.

If you think about it, most of the reasons you need to get your MLA to go to bat for you are due to the actions of the government. School policies, hospital closures, waste and transit initiatives that impact your community; these things are brought by government and if there is a real concern and if your rep is in government, aren’t you S.O.L?A concrete example is MLA and AG Wally Oppal and insurgent indy candidate Vicki Huntington. The popularity of Ms. Huntington can be seen as a direct result of Mr. Oppals inability to represent the views of his riding in the public forum. If his voters don’t see him as their man, whose is he?

That brings me to STV. Imagine a riding with more than one MLA. One in government, one or two in opposition. Even if you voted for the MLA that is in government as your #1 choice, you have two other reps to go to bat for you if the some policy of the government threatens to bite you in the rear. Gone is the four year dictatorship. Instead we get a continuous conversation with the citizen.

As we go into the next cycle, I hope the STV will have passed, and the results of the next election will truely reflect the views of British Columbians and the citizens of New Westminster.

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