9. Influencing policy change

It is only through public policy that permanent and sustainable change for a better future can take place. Good policy requires ‘political space’, a convergence of the right leaders, at the right time, doing the right thing. Smart policy making requires the ability to identify what is not working and foster a consensus around what can work. Many inputs go into creating the dynamics that turn scientific evidence into community action, and ultimately policy change. Here are two examples of foundations partnering with communities to cultivate a convergence of stakeholder and public opinion in support of new approaches to early childhood and family service delivery.

Avenir d’enfants, mobilizing to improve outcomes for young children in Quebec

Avenir d’enfants is an ambitious civic/government partnership that guides and financially supports Quebec communities to promote the development and well-being of children from the prenatal period to age 5. Public health, early childhood programs, schools, municipalities, community agencies and parent representatives come together to harmonize strategies, align services and mandates, explore and experiment with the integration of funding and human resources and ensure continuity of services for young children and families.

Avenir d’enfants distinguishes itself from other community-mobilizing initiatives in a singular manner. The Quebec legislature created a 10-year fund for community projects designed to create equitable opportunities for children. The Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation added $250 million to the province’s $150 million commitment.Avenir d’enfants manages the fund under the direction of a 10-member board composed of equal numbers of women and men. The funding partners appoint four members each, while an additional two are jointly determined.

Figure 3.5

Avenir d’enfants shares the perspective of many community collaborations. The goal is to mobilize stakeholders and residents to leverage assets and build social capital for early childhood at the local level. But Avenir d’enfants operates in a jurisdiction with well-defined service systems in place:

  • Education provides learning and care for children aged 5 to 12 years.
  • Public health and social services operate through community clinics to promote healthy pre- and postnatal care.
  • A network of early childhood providers (Centres de la petite enfance – CPE) serves 60 percent of young children.

Avenir d’enfants is not a substitute for system infrastructure and public investment. While recognizing there is a need for more CPE spaces or other programming, it does not fund direct services. Rather, it wants service providers to better know the families in their community and how they are being served, and to find out how they could be better served.

“The first step for everyone was to look beyond the boundaries of their own roles and responsibilities and see what else was happening in their communities,” says Lyse Brunet, the CEO of Avenir d’enfants. “We act as a network weaver, connecting people who work with children, including school board directors, CPE supervisors, municipal staff and public health professionals so they can develop a shared understanding of how children live.”

Avenir d’enfants does not have the authority to redirect the human or financial resources of agencies. “What we can do is support a process where service providers can create a strategy. Everyone has some room at the margins to do something differently and they can identify what additional resources are needed to collaborate for improved outcomes for children and families,” explains Brunet.

The challenge for Avenir d’enfants is to facilitate community-based remedies to service challenges that deny a strong start to all of Quebec’s children. In year one (2010–11), 66 communities developed action plans identifying and addressing service challenges. Avenir d’enfants documented the actions, identified and produced support tools and shared the most effective approaches between participants. The experience promotes better practices at the local level and positions communities to formulate recommendations for policy change at the provincial level.

By 2012, Avenir d’enfants will be working with 125 communities. Inspired by the results from local projects using the Early Development Instrument (EDI) to inform their plans, Avenir d’enfants is joining with the Ministère de la santé et des services sociaux (MSSS) to use the EDI in all Quebec kindergarten classes. The EDI assesses the readiness of kindergarten-aged children for school.

Avenir d’enfants also undertakes projects with a province-wide reach. Thirteen projects with postsecondary and training institutions are designed to increase capacity in the sector. For example, St. Jerome CEGEP is adapting the provincial curriculum for family homecare providers. This initiative has the potential to reach 11,000 family caregivers who are part of the provincial child care system, improving quality in family care homes and outcomes for children.

One of the big questions Avenir d’enfants hopes to answer is how education, health and community agencies can better intervene on behalf of children from disadvantaged homes. Communities are encouraged to identify and overcome barriers to the participation of families who have been traditionally underserved by publicly funded programs.

Behind Avenir d’enfants is a vision and longstanding community action. A Quebec Crazy for its Children, released in 1992 by the government’s Working Group on Youth, galvanized a consensus behind prioritizing public resources for children. The report is credited with creating the political space for Quebec’s successful anti-poverty and family support policies. It inspired 1, 2, 3 GO!, community- based projects supported by the Centraide of Greater Montreala to improve outcomes for children. In 2002, 1, 2, 3 GO! expanded its scope to become a resource and support agency devoted entirely to early childhood work throughout Quebec.

In 2000, the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation was established, mandated to address the underlying causes of poverty. It developed Quebec enfants, a division within the foundation designed to promote school-readiness. In early 2009, following several months of discussions, and with support from their respective funders, 1, 2, 3 GO! and Quebec enfants merged. Their networks and complementary know-how formed the basis for Avenir d’enfants.

The Chagnon Foundation sees its partnership with government as a tool to implement solutions identified by those who make a daily contribution to the lives of children. The partnership encourages government to become more porous: promoting innovation by allowing new voices to enter the policy making system. Often the people with the most insight are the families who use the services themselves. Those least likely to be asked, but often with the most to offer, are those families who do not use them. Avenir d’enfants offers them all a voice.

Building early learning opportunities in Atlantic Canada

Another initiative that partners with governments to maximize leverage is the Early Childhood Development Centres project in Atlantic Canada. The Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation (MWMFF) has agreements with the Governments of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to create demonstration sites that combine the existing resources of child care, kindergarten, special needs and family supports into early childhood centres aligned with schools. In Newfoundland and Labrador, MWMFF is partnering with the Jimmy Pratt Foundation and the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland to support early childhood research and evaluation in collaboration with governments and communities.

These full service centres showcase best practices in early childhood programming and identify the policy changes needed to remove impediments to access and quality. By demonstrating to policy makers and the public the value of comprehensive service delivery, the projects can help inform the development of effective early childhood systems.

Each of the 14 centres MWMFF supports is unique because each community is different. Families are actively involved in shaping the programming their children receive, but across the region they agree on the same thing: the need for an accessible location that provides educational care for their children that facilitates their work and family life and that provides supports if their child has special needs.

The Health and Education Research Group (HERG), at the University of New Brunswick, and researchers from l’Université de Moncton are evaluating the experiences at the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island sites for children, families, staff, program managers and service administrators. The findings will inform recommendations for policy action.

Regional differences are considered in site selection. La Boussole, Centre de la petite enfance et de la famille de Richibucto Inc. opened in Soleil Levant School in the fall of 2010. La Boussole (The Compass) is one of nine early childhood demonstration sites in New Brunswick. Its team of staff delivers programming to parents and children including fulland part-time educational child care, parent and child playgroups, immunization clinics and healthy lifestyle programs, integrated with school-based services.

La Boussole serves Acadian and Francophone families in Kent County, as well as English-speaking families who want their children to attend a French school. Michèle Doiron Campbell, Vice-President of La Boussole and the mother of two preschoolers, welcomes the strong linguistic and cultural identity the program offers. “Minority Francophone children often do not have the opportunity to acquire pre-literacy skills in French before they start school. This centre will help children build a strong linguistic foundation for their ongoing learning and development.”

In New Brunswick’s Saint John River valley, MWMFF is supporting the Carleton York Victoria network of demonstration sites in small rural communities. Anchored by Step Ahead in Bath, also a government-supported site, lessons learned are quickly transferred to new communities. The school district, Valley Family Resource Program and public health are active partners.

The demonstration sites have continued through a change of government in New Brunswick. One of the first actions of the new government was to consolidate all early childhood programming under a new Ministry of Education and Early Childhood Development. The education ministry continues to confer with stakeholders on the best ways to meet the government’s election commitment for 10,000 new early learning and care spaces.

Smart Start Prince Edward Island

“The Preschool Excellence Initiative is based on the belief that our youngest Islanders deserve the strongest start possible and that government has a societal responsibility to provide for all Island children.”35

Figure 3.6

Smart Start in Prince Edward Island is another MWMFF-supported project; it is a partnership between the Eastern School District, Public Health Nursing, Holland College, the University of PEI and CHANCES, a non-profit community agency. Operating out of four locations, the program reaches out to local families, offering a full-day/full-year child and family program that includes pre- and postnatal resources, nutrition counselling, an early development program for infants and toddlers, school-based preschool for 2- to 4-year-olds and child/parent activities, resources and information.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to model best practice in Prince Edward Island that meets the needs of young children and their families and is solidly based in the most current research,” says Ann Robertson, Executive Director of the CHANCES Family Centre, and manager of the Smart Start centres.

In September 2011, the Smart Start sites joined the Prince Edward Island government’s new Preschool Excellence Initiative as Early Years Centres. Early Years Centres are the core of the new initiative. They follow a common curriculum, have mandated parent committees and employ a province-wide salary and fee scale.

The MWMFF and the provincial government are working with researchers at Holland College and the University of PEI to monitor the first year transition to Early Years Centres. The evaluation will establish baseline data for the province and inform further development. The next phase of the evaluation will assess the impact of the Preschool Initiative on children, families, early childhood educators, communities and the province.

MWMFF is expanding support for Smart Start to reach families who traditionally do not use early childhood services. Its experiences will inform future policy discussions.

Evaluations from Smart Start already show positive results.36 The site reconfirms the important role of the principal in an integrated setting. This position leads in creating a professional learning community of teachers, early childhood educators and parents. Utilization data indicates more families are being served in ways that they want to be, with a broader range of more flexible and affordable services. Parent satisfaction has also improved. Staff members are more responsive to parent concerns, listen and act on their suggestions and involve them in programming. Preliminary results show improvements in school readiness for children who regularly participate in Smart Start programming.

In addition to the funding and guidance provided to demonstration sites during start up and operations, the MWMFF uses a combination of methods to support progress on early childhood policy. Joint protocols and agreements clarify roles, responsibilities and expected outcomes between levels of government, the foundation and community partners. Staff and outside expertise are made available to inform policy, programming and research. Joint professional development opportunities are provided for educators and administrators from education, health and the community. Foundation staff members maintain regular contact with community and government officials, and they employ a communications strategy that combines praise and nudge to move the agenda forward.

a Quebec’s equivalent to the United Way.

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