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Abbotsford school district backs early learning program

StrongStart programs require that caregivers stay with their children instead of dropping them off as they would at a preschool. Pictured from left, Gurdev Kaur helps her grand-daughter Harsimam solve a puzzle, as does Harjinder Shergill with her grand-daughter Harneet. - ALINA KONEVSKI/ABBOTSFORD NEWS
StrongStart programs require that caregivers stay with their children instead of dropping them off as they would at a preschool. Pictured from left, Gurdev Kaur helps her grand-daughter Harsimam solve a puzzle, as does Harjinder Shergill with her grand-daughter Harneet.
— image credit: ALINA KONEVSKI/ABBOTSFORD NEWS

Harry Sayers elementary has become the only school in the Abbotsford district to offer two StrongStart programs after an overwhelming number of parents expressed interest in the supervised preschool.

StrongStart is a drop-in program where children ages 0–8 play games, draw, read stories. It is different from a daycare centre because parents and caregivers must stay with their children.

The Abbotsford school district believes the preventative program will pay for itself years down the line, with more students graduating and becoming upstanding citizens.

"We actually know that the best intervention we could do if we want kids to graduate and be successful actually years before they come here," said school district superintendent Kevin Godden. "Prevention is a tough thing to sell to people, because you sometimes don't see that. But we actually have evidence to show that those kids that we invest in early, we see the outcomes on the back end. Those are the kids that graduate. They're well-adjusted, they go on to post-secondary, and they're doing great work."

The second Harry Sayers StrongStart centre is the 12th StrongStart in the district. The first 11 were funded by the province. The district believed in the successes so much that it invested in the 12th and is seeking community sponsors for another 16 programs.

As Police chief constable Bob Rich said at the launch of the second Harry Sayers StrongStart centre on Jan. 10, "StrongStart is about putting me out of work." The program is meant to reduce the police department's odds of dealing with the student later in life because of crime, addiction, or other issues.

"Kids have to succeed in school in order for them to succeed in society," said Rich.

Grandmother Harjinder Shergill has been coming to the first StrongStart program at Harry Sayers several times per week with her granddaughter Harneet. She loves the program, she says, because it helps Harneet develop crucial skills, such as sharing with others, in a fun community atmosphere.

According to the school district, all StrongStart programs are at capacity. The Harry Sayers program in particular was overflowing with interested parents. So far, 110 families have registered for the program and that number is expected to grow.

The school district is not anticipating having the budget to fund additional StrongStart centres. Instead, Godden has teamed up with Rich to campaign local businesses, community groups, and service clubs to sponsor more programs.

After initial startup, the annual operating cost for a StrongStart, include facilitator wage, is about $32,000.

The school district has adopted a long-term vision of student development and prioritized early learning over the last few years. Godden said that the district needs 28 StrongStart programs to support the children who will become future students in Abbotsford's 30 public elementary schools.

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