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First step needs follow through
Editorial Comment - Deh Cho Drum

Junior kindergarten is coming to the Northwest Territories - that much is certain.

But the question remains as to how the rollout will happen and what the GNWT is doing to fund the program.

Earlier this month, the government made a surprise announcement it would be fully funding junior kindergarten in the coming school year.

That was a policy pivot sharp enough to give the average territorial resident whiplash, considering the GNWT had been adamant school boards would need to foot much of the bill for the controversial program.

As usual, the devil is in the details. MLAs are still questioning whether the true cost of the program will in fact be covered or if a good portion of the burden will fall on school divisions regardless of the minister's statements.

If indeed the funding dollars come through, this change in position is incredibly welcome news for many communities within the region, where education pressures are creating a wealth of problems that need to be addressed.

First and foremost among those problems is that enrolment in Deh Cho schools has unfortunately declined once again.

That means teaching positions could be on the chopping block when the Dehcho Divisional Education Council deliberates on its budget in June.

Nahendeh-riding communities have embraced junior kindergarten since the beginning, according to Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson.

When the program was in its pilot phase, however, not all Nahendeh schools ran junior kindergarten. In some cases, that was because there were no children of the proper age. In others, such as the case of Sambaa K'e, a crowded school meant there was little room for four-year-olds.

The unique problem faced by small-community schools in the Northwest Territories is that often you have one teacher, who is usually also the principal, for all grade levels.

As Thompson speculates, the introduction of a play-based program like junior kindergarten in those schools not only creates an additional responsibility for the teacher, it also brings up the question of how play-based programming can co-exist with structured lessons for older children and youth.

Meanwhile, in the Deh Cho riding under MLA Michael Nadli, two communities that run Aboriginal Head Start programs are still widely unhappy with the prospect of junior kindergarten - regardless of whether that program is fully funded.

There are still many questions that need to be asked by communities. The lingering question of funding is just one of many that need to be addressed.

MLAs need to keep up their pressure on the GNWT to ensure that when junior kindergarten is rolled out to all communities, it is done in a way that does not affect the education of other students and does not jeopardize the existence of programs like Aboriginal Head Start.

And the GNWT needs to clear the air once and for all on what exactly it is willing to provide money for.

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