Some N.S. regional centres for education see decline in students deemed vulnerable
Expert urges caution in interpreting the data
Four of Nova Scotia's regional centres for education have seen a decline in the percentage of students deemed vulnerable upon entering grade school, but at least one administrator cautions about reading too much into the results of any given year.
Nova Scotia has used a tool since 2013 called the early development instrument (EDI), which gauges the development of five year olds entering Grade Primary.
The tool evaluates children in five categories: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and communication skills and general knowledge. Students with a score below the 10th-percentile cutoff of the province's established baseline are considered vulnerable in a given category.
The provincial average of students displaying vulnerability in at least one of the five categories is 25.5 per cent.
Three of the regional centres for education are near or below that level: Annapolis Valley (25.8 per cent); Cape Breton-Victoria (21.6 per cent); and Halifax (23.6 per cent).
The remaining centres — Chignecto Central (28.9 per cent), South Shore (35.2 per cent), Strait (28.3 per cent) and Tri-County (36.5 per cent) — are above the Nova Scotia average.
Annapolis Valley, Cape Breton-Victoria, Chignecto Central and Halifax all improved on their average from the previous report. The improvement was greatest at Cape Breton-Victoria.
Unclear what's causing the declines
Donna Sullivan is the co-ordinator of literacy, school success planning and pre-primary for the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education.
She said there is no definitive reason that can be pointed to for the change in results, but she said the EDI represents a moment in time that provides an opportunity to evaluate what's working well with child development, what needs work and then collaborate with other groups to seek improvement.
"Like with any cohort of kids, they're individuals," she said in an interview.
"And they're going to bring with them a whole set of strengths and we have to just work from that place, build on the strengths we see in every cohort of students."
Each time EDI results are released, Sullivan said administrators first do a regional assessment and then drill down into what they say about families of schools and individual sites.
That helps determine areas that might need greater attention, such as more recreational opportunities or partnering with other community agencies to address needs such as food security.
"Our job with it is to not necessarily say, 'This is the reason we're growing,' it's about keeping conversation open and leaning into our parents and leaning into our communities and using all the pieces of data we have so that the school experience overall becomes stronger," she said. "We're looking at the whole child."
Chris Boulter, executive director of the Tri-County Regional Centre for Education, said they use a similar approach to interpreting the EDI results to formulate a response plan.
"What we would do is look at what schools have what results and in terms of resource allocation, that would be a factor," he said.
"There's no doubt that EDI data is a factor in the supports that we choose to put in certain schools."
Like the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education, Tri-County covers a geographic region of the province with stubbornly high child poverty rates.
It might not be in the job description of a regional centre for education to find solutions to that, but Boulter said they tap into partnerships with community organizations to try to find ways to level the playing field for students in need, in hopes that it translates to improved educational results.
Healthy food program
A recent grant Tri-County received from the local credit union will be used to support a healthy food program for some families this summer, for example.
"We're the regional centre for education, but we work in communities and we want to be part of the communities and part of that is supporting folks who may be having some adverse effects from poverty," she said.
Just as Sullivan resists the idea that there is any single explanation for the progress they're seeing in Cape Breton, Boulter said it's difficult to attribute the Tri-County EDI results, which have remained consistently high, to any single factor.
In her region, Sullivan said finding ways to navigate the pandemic, while continuing to deliver educational services, helped strengthen relationships with families and increase trust, something that's important when it comes to the metrics tracked by EDI.
Boulter and Sullivan both said COVID-19 highlighted the disparities among families who have access to things such as technology, healthy food and certain types of activities. Having more insight about that, along with the EDI data, presents an opportunity to consider ways to improve support for families from one year to the next.
"In order to build strengths, in order to support programs, in order to put anything in place, we have to have a clear vision of who it is we're putting the programming in place for," said Sullivan.
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