Alow buzz is the only sound in the Grade 1 classroom during lunch hour at the Rt. Hon. Joe Clark School in High River, Alta. It’s Friday, hot dog day at the school named after the most famous son of this southern Alberta community of 6,500. Veteran teacher Susan Goode looks at her young charges munching their hot dogs, and worries. She has just come from another Grade 1 classroom where she relieved a teacher who was giving some children extra help in reading and math, and is pondering the effects of the cutbacks in education funding included in last week’s provincial budget. “I could see that program
being cut right out,” she says sadly.
Down the hall, principal Thomas Bown shows signs of frustration. Provincial grants make up about 60 per cent of his public school board’s yearly budget of $34.3 million, so the Klein government’s cuts in education spending will have a deep impact. Bown used to be able to hire full-time teacher aides to help teachers with students who have disabilities or special needs. Last fall, the aides’ hours and therefore salaries were cut by 20 per cent; despite those cuts, they continued to work with the teachers on their own time. The latest round of cutbacks means that next year the teacher aides may be gone altogether. And Bown’s worries don’t end there: he fears that less money will mean bigger classrooms and perhaps even layoff notices for
some of the school’s 23 teachers.
Many educators say the most devastating cut in Alberta’s education budget is a planned 56-percent reduction in provincial grants to kindergarten classes. About one kilometre south of Joe Clark School, down the hill and tucked away near the Little Bow River, is Highwood Early Childhood Services, a nonprofit community-run kindergarten with 134 children. In a 1990 evaluation, the Alberta department of education described it as one of the best kindergartens in the province, a “lighthouse for early childhood education.” But that may be about to change. Starting in September, annual provincial grants to the 20-yearold school will be cut from $1,260 per child to just $595. Parents who now pay $29 a month for each child at the school will have to pay as much as $125. “It’s devastating to our programs,” says kindergarten co-ordinator Catheryn Bennington. “They’ve taken away our lighthouse and given us a candle.” Bennington, her teachers and her parent-run board are struggling to find ways to preserve the school. They’re considering varying its program, depending on what a parent can afford: some parents may send their youngsters for a full 400 hours per year, while others may pay less for a slimmeddown 200-hour term. But many parents, like Kim Brands who quit a $50,000-a-year job as an RCMP officer to stay home with her two children, fear that a two-tier system could evolve—one for the rich and one for the not-so-rich. The higher kindergarten fees mean Brands will be forced to place her four-year-old daughter Alynne in a half-time program next year. And since funding for busing kindergarten children will be cut at the same time, Brands will have to drive Alynne the 20 km from their farm to school and back every day. She agrees with Premier Ralph Klein that Albertans must tighten their belts. But she adds: “I think he tightened a little harder than he should have.”
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