How Saint John is Closing the Education and Poverty Gaps

Published in the Telegraph Journal – February 21, 2019

Commentary by W. Barry Miller

How Saint John is Closing the Education and Poverty Gaps

There is a powerful change in direction that is taking place in Greater Saint John. A determined effort to address generational poverty is seeing success. This city no longer has the highest rate of child poverty in Canada and actually is leading the way in reducing poverty.

In 20 years, the overall poverty rate has decreased from 20 percent to 13 percent, according to Statistics Canada.

A concerted effort is being made by more than 200 different organizations along with their respective staff members and volunteers to focus on enriching children’s education. There is a determination to level the playing field of opportunity for children who live in poverty. There is a partnering with schools, neighbourhoods and community organizations that is addressing children’s most basic needs, building their academic skills and helping them to discover their life passions and to explore the broader community and all its possibilities.

There is also an exciting new project that is designed to address the education of children living in poverty. The project title is “When Children Succeed, We Break the Cycle”. It is already underway in kindergarten to second grade classrooms in neighbourhoods where children live in poverty.

There are seven elementary schools within these priority neighbourhoods that have been given additional teachers to reduce class size at kindergarten through Grade Two and/or to create team teaching situations, allowing teachers to provide more small group interventions.

The schools also have a full-time Community School Coordinator to help engage families and the many community partners.

There is the expectation that closing children’s educational gap in the early years will achieve the highest benefit. The focus is to meet the benchmark of every second grade student meeting the provincial literacy standard.

This project has been well developed and includes regular data collection and a research component. This is a three-year demonstration project, led by the Anglophone South School District with funding forthcoming from business and community leaders, the provincial government through Living SJ, along with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. More than 1000 children will benefit locally and provide the blueprint to help children throughout New Brunswick.

Special recognition must be given to the Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative (BCAPI) for their incredible level of support and leadership. Saint John may be recognized as a model city in regard to poverty reduction, but no other city has this wonderful support base.

BCAPI is a founding partner of Living SJ, the city’s collective impact strategy to end generational poverty. There are four priority areas. The one just described “Closing the Education Achievement Gap” is one of the four. The other three include: transforming low income neighbourhoods into vibrant mixed income communities; improving the health of residents through neighbourhood models of care; and connecting low-income residents to employment through education and training.

One of these priority areas working alone cannot change the trajectory of poverty, but all four working together stands a far higher chance of success.

Saint John is the only community in Canada to establish such a business anti-poverty program. This group of business leaders working with the community including three levels of government, neighbourhoods and non-profits have had a profound impact on reducing poverty.

This group just celebrated a 20-year anniversary. This alone is a wonderful tribute to acknowledge that they are in it for the long term. Living SJ has been providing a powerful momentum with a collective impact approach since 2013.

In 2017, the provincial government announced it was investing $10 million over the next five years to create a Social Innovation Fund to focus on the fight to end generational poverty in Saint John. All initiatives are evidence-based and will be evaluated to determine their impact.

“When Children Succeed” is one of eight projects receiving support from the fund.

The status of these projects is expected in the near future.

We can be proud of the incredible amount of work, the dedication and commitment of Saint John people working together and looking after one another. These efforts are making Saint John a model city.

W. Barry Miller
is a former school superintendent. He is based in Fredericton.

Katie Bowden