Hamilton students improve reading, writing skills — poverty rate still high

Hamilton’s young children are showing marked improvements in language skills, but an increasing number are showing up for school hungry, tired, or badly dressed for the weather, new data obtained by CBC News shows.

'Stable is better than getting worse'

The newest results from Hamilton's Early Development Instrument tests are out, and they show a mixed bag of results for the city's kids. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Hamilton's young children are showing marked improvements in language skills, but an increasing number are showing up for school hungry, tired, or badly dressed for the weather, new data obtained by CBC News shows.

At the same time, poverty levels for children are down to their lowest levels in the city since 2010 — though they are still decidedly higher than the rest of the country.

The data, which comes from the latest Early Development Instrument questionnaire, shows a mixed bag of progress for the city's children. But, one childcare advocate says, the news on the whole is largely positive.

"I think it's certainly more good than bad," said former school board trustee Judith Bishop.

The Early Development Instrument (EDI), is a school readiness measurement tool developed in Hamilton which has been used since 2002 to analyze information on more than 5,200 kindergarten students every five years.

The 2015 results show that the latest batch of students most improved in the areas of language and cognitive development (which measures early literacy and numeracy) and communication skills and general knowledge (which are oral language skills).

Hamilton's "vulnerability rate" (ie: kids who are at risk on those markers) dropped from 9.2 per cent to 6.4 per cent and from 14.1 per cent to 9.4 per cent in those areas, respectively.

Good news for bad test scores

That bodes well for a public school system that is hurting on those fronts. According to the last round of EQAO results, in the 2013-14 school year, 74 per cent of the board's students were at or above the provincial standard for Grade 3 writing. In 2015-16, that number slumped to 63 per cent, below the provincial average.

To see Hamilton's young students starting school with a better preparedness around language is encouraging, said Chris Borst, a program analyst with the city.

"These are at least promising results with respect to further EQAO results," he said.

Where warning signs exist, however, is on the physical health and well being portion of the EDI. That section measures things such as readiness for the school day (like if students are hungry, tired, late, or not dressed properly, as well as measuring motor skills).

Hamilton's vulnerability rate on that section rose from 16.9 per cent in 2010 to 18.4 per cent in 2015. Borst said it's not "completely clear" why.

"It would seem to be the case that we're seeing an increase… around hunger and tiredness, but improvements around fine motor skills" he said.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board superintendent of education Sharon Stephanian told CBC News that the board is in the early stages of examining the data.

"We want to set every child up for success in school and in life," she said in an email.

"It is very difficult to cite factors behind these trends, because the topic is so complex and multi-faceted. The provincial investment in the early years, including full-day kindergarten, has the potential to positively impact our children."

Poverty rate still above national average

So, could that vulnerability rise be related to issues of poverty? It's possible — but according to the latest taxfile data, Hamilton's youth poverty rate actually dropped from 22.3 per cent to 20.6 per cent. That's the city's best showing since 2010.

Bishop, who has long been an advocate for more resources to reduce children who live in poverty, says that's a positive sign. But, she added, that number is still far too high.

"A fifth of all our children. That's still staggering," she said. "We still have far too much poverty."

The newest EDI results show that Hamilton is closing the gap with the province in many areas. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Hamilton's child poverty levels also stand higher than the national level, too. The national number as per taxfile data is 18.5 per cent, which is two per cent lower than Hamilton's number.

Hamilton is also seeing a vulnerability rate rise from the EDI on the "emotional maturity" scale, which measures things like anxiety and fearfulness, aggression and hyperactivity.

On that marker, Hamilton shot up from 9.4 per cent to 12.3 per cent. "That is a significant increase," Borst said.

The EDI results also show that Hamilton's overall vulnerability rate is slightly above the provincial level, at 30.7 per cent versus 29.4 per cent. That means that at least 30.7 per cent of Hamilton students are considered "vulnerable" on some of the markers.

But, Borst points out, the gap between the city and the rest of the province is narrowing, which, he says, points to signs of improvement.

"We would obviously prefer to see everything go down," he said. "Zero would be the ideal.

"But stable is better than getting worse."



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