Whole Child Program at risk: board

Shannon smiled resignedly as she disentangled her daughter Alex's arms from around her neck. "But Mom, can I go get my face painted?" Alex asked. “OK, go find Barbara and she can take you downstairs.”

Shannon smiled resignedly as she disentangled her daughter Alex’s arms from around her neck.

“But Mom, can I go get my face painted?” Alex asked.

“OK, go find Barbara and she can take you downstairs,” Shannon replied as her daughter scampered away across the gym floor at Whitehorse Elementary.

“Barbara” is Barbara Curtis, the outreach worker for the Whole Child Program at Whitehorse Elementary. Shannon – who declined to give her last name – met Curtis in 2008 when she moved to Whitehorse from Edmonton.

Shannon said she was struggling as a parent, but Curtis and the Whole Child Program helped her through it. The program works by creating a welcoming space at the school for families, but it’s about more than just game nights on Wednesdays.

The activity nights allow Curtis and coordinator Crystal Pearl-Hodgins to build trust and relationships with families. Whole Child can be a doorway to other programs like family violence counselling and addictions services, or it can simply be a place to let your kids blow off some energy or learn to bake.

The Nobody’s Perfect parenting class offered for free through the program was a huge help to Shannon, and now she and Alex are fixtures on Wednesday nights.

“We went through a lot of really stressful situations. Barbara’s helped me find things for my children when I couldn’t afford them because I am a single mother,” Shannon said.

“I’ve watched Shannon and her family grow up,” Curtis said.

“I took her to the hospital the day her baby was induced. I tell people all the time that I have the best job in the world because I get to help families. I get hugs in the grocery store,” she said.

When Shannon arrived with Alex at the school last Wednesday, she was given a letter from the program’s board of directors saying that it might be the last night of the Whole Child Program’s existence.

The program, which has been helping young families in downtown Whitehorse for over a decade, is losing Pearl-Hodgins as its executive director and coordinator. She has been on secondment from the Department of Education since the program began and the department wants her back in the classroom.

Pearl-Hodgins isn’t allowed to speak about the changes because she is a department employee.

Curtis, who has been on contract as the program’s outreach worker since the beginning, fears that the program cannot survive what its board of directors is calling a “unilateral” change by the department that sets the program up for failure.

“Honestly, I worry about the program. I don’t know what will happen, but my fear is that in two years there won’t be a program anymore, that it will be gone,” she said.

The program is currently only fully implemented at Whitehorse Elementary, but there are two smaller versions at Elijah Smith Elementary and Selkirk Elementary. On top of removing Pearl-Hodgins, the department also wants to see the program expanded and fully implemented at all three current schools, plus Takhini Elementary.

“We’re looking to expand the program to Takhini Elementary this fall, and of course provide additional funding to ensure the program’s continued success,” said Education Minister Scott Kent.

The current funding for the program is around $200,000, which includes Pearl-Hodgins’s salary. Deputy Minister Valerie Royle said the proposed new budget would be between $141,000 and $200,000.

The Whole Child Program’s board says right now it can’t survive losing Pearl-Hodgins, and that the proposed expansion is putting Curtis’s job at risk as well. They aren’t standing in the way of expanding – indeed the one thing that everyone agrees on is that the program is hugely successful and should grow – but they’re worried that the department is moving too fast. They want a year to plan for Pearl-Hodgins’s replacement, to make sure her wealth of knowledge isn’t lost.

But Royle said that year’s reprieve isn’t going to happen.

According to Royle, the program doesn’t need a teacher – or a teacher’s hefty salary – to be run effectively. It could just as easily be run by school-based coordinators, she said. Exactly how many coordinators and where to place them would be up to the board, she said.

“Here’s the thing: We gave notice in January. That’s eight months before school starts again. Since then the board has concentrated on meeting with the minister, basically not accepting the decision and fighting the decision and now we’re in a crunch at May 9 and we still haven’t seen a proposal from them. I would think that there was adequate notice provided if people had actually started working on this in January. I’m a little bit frustrated because now they’re saying we need another year. Guess what? The kids in the classroom need that teacher in September,” Royle said.

But the decision that a full teacher wasn’t needed was made after a program review back in 2010. The board wasn’t told about Pearl-Hodgins’s reassignment until January 2013. The department couldn’t say how many other seconded teachers there are working outside the classroom in the Yukon.

Many parents are also worried about the department’s handling of the changes.

“I think having a teacher at the helm is what makes the program what it is. I think (the changes) will dilute the quality of what is happening here,” said Karen Baxter, who has been attending the program with her six-year-old daughter Lucy for two years.

“I think it’s a little disconcerting when government starts dictating to non-profits like this. Whenever the government is involved, as well-intentioned as they might be, they sometimes put up barriers to people who are trying to access the services,” said Josh Robinson, whose family has been attending for four years.

Shannon worries most about disadvantaged families like hers, and how the program will survive the loss of two core staff members.

“Barbara’s an amazing woman and this is a really amazing program. It’s just really going to break my heart if it changes the dynamic from what it is right now,” Shannon said.

Royle and Kent both said the push to expand the program is coming from the principals of the three other schools, but according to Curtis and the program chair, Jean Dacko, none of those principals have come to a Wednesday activity night or asked their advice on how to run similar programs at other schools.

When the program was partially expanded to Selkirk, Curtis said the school staff there couldn’t find time in their staff meetings for her to make a presentation on the work she has been doing for the past 12 years.

The program requires real commitment, not just from the staff and volunteers, but from the parents who attend. Setting up three new versions of the program by September just isn’t possible without Pearl-Hodgins and Curtis at the helm, said board chair Dacko.

“We’re a board of volunteers. We all have jobs. We just got the department’s proposal a couple of weeks ago. Schools are almost out for the summer, and we feel that a good timeline would be a year. Let’s stop, sit down and do it right so the program can continue to do it right,” she said.

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com

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