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'Time is running out': Surrey parents worried about StrongStart program's future

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Parents, teachers and disability advocates gathered Monday to share their concerns about the possible closure of StrongStart and call for more provincial funding.

StrongStart is a free drop-in early education program for children aged 0-5, designed to ease them into kindergarten while also providing support and outreach to families.

“By not identifying their needs early, children are not going to school. It is really easy to connect the dots between children with disabilities being excluded from school and the StrongStart program," explained Nicole Kaler with BCEdAccess, a program that supports families with disabilities.

The program has already faced cuts, only allowing families to send their children two days a week rather than the usual five – but without $260,000 from the Ministry of Education, it will be forced to close entirely.

Anne Whitmore, Surrey DPAC president, voiced her concerns. She said her children attended StrongStart and it was instrumental to their educational success.

“It’s a safe environment, there were structured activities," Whitmore said. "Fraser Health might come by and do education for parents or caregivers, so it was a really wonderful place for families.”

Whitmore said the district has been funding StrongStart through another kindergarten preparedness program, ReadySetLearn, but the need has outgrown the money available.

"In Surrey, because of the massive growth and the need for creating physical space for education … children are paying the price for that,” explained Whitmore.

The Education Ministry told CTV News funding has not been cut and the decision to keep the program running is up to the district, not the province.

But the Surrey school district said government funding has not increased since 2008.

"The ministry and the government like to talk about cost but they don’t like to talk about the cost that doesn’t count. Who pays the price when a child who needs support before school doesn’t get (it)?" says Lizanne Foster, vice-president of the Surrey Teachers Association.

‘They are being left behind’

The collapse of StrongStart would also mean the loss of 34 staff members, represented by CUPE Local 728.

Tammy Murphy, president of Local 728, said morale among members is low right now and they have nowhere else to go.

"(After) all the commitment they have put into these families and these children … they feel they are being left behind, and so are these families," says Murphy.

Murphy added all members are early childhood educators and are trained specifically for StrongStart so it would be a loss of their jobs entirely.

“They wouldn’t have a place to go. If there is no StrongStart program, there is no (early childhood education) programs in the district. ECE is only StrongStart.”

She said they are "terrified" for the future of the education landscape in Surrey.

“They give early intervention which is so crucial in a district like Surrey with so many students. We need to advocate hard for this, the funding has not gone up since 2008.”

Murphy said StrongStart is too important to lose and the district and the ministry need to work together to ensure the program can stay open.

There are 25 StrongStart programs across the district, with more than 3,000 kids registered.

The Surrey School district is planning to meet with Education Minister Rachna Singh this week.

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