A hallway conversation confirmed Rhonda Pidwerbeski’s belief in the benefits of full-day kindergarten.
Pidwerbeski, a long-time kindergarten teacher at Saskatoon Public Schools, was in the corridor at Mayfair School when the Grade 1 teacher shared how full-day kindergarten has made a dramatic difference in the ability and readiness of students to learn in her class.
“Their skills are stronger, and their ability and readiness for school is vastly different as a result of a full-day kindergarten. When you hear the teachers who receive these kids saying what a difference it’s made, it really reinforces what the program is trying to do,” Pidwerbeski said. “By the time they get to Grade 1 they view themselves as learners and as having a skill set. They are prepared.”
The full-day kindergarten and prekindergarten programs offered in 13 schools are funded by the Saskatoon Public Schools Foundation’s (SPSF) Early Learning Equal Start Campaign. Priorities of the $20-million Campaign include full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten, the Early Learner Tutor Program, and Summer Reading Camp. The overall goal is to see students achieve grade-level literacy by Grade 3 in order to set them up for future success in school and in life.
Pidwerbeski believes SPSF’s financial support for full-day kindergarten and prekindergarten makes a difference for children who may bring less experience into their school life.
“SPSF is putting its money in the best places. The schools we are focusing on with SPSF resources are the schools that need it the most,” she said. “My wish would be that this is continued forever because I feel the benefits are huge.”
Pidwerbeski piloted full-day kindergarten at Mayfair during the pandemic-interrupted school year in 2019-20 and through 2020-21. Her experience is that full-day instruction offers students opportunities for learning and individual growth that are difficult to duplicate in half-time programs.
“The love of learning they get at an early age develops even more when you have them for a full day. Their confidence develops more, their independence, all those skills develop better when they are there all day long. They have a sense of confidence, relationship building, and a sense of being part of the school.”
Spending a full day with students allows teachers to expand their repertoire as they take students beyond the ABCs and show them the many ways to use their reading and writing skills. It also offers more opportunities for play-based learning and provides teachers with flexibility to introduce concepts and then revisit and reinforce them later in the day. Extended time together means learning can be more responsive to students’ needs and there are greater chances for one-on-one interaction. The pace of learning in full-day classrooms provides a gentler transition to full-day Grade 1 than the move from half-day kindergarten, Pidwerbeski believes.
Data gathered by prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers as part of the Early Learning Equal Start pilot year pointed to considerable progress for students. An estimated 90 per cent of students met developmentally appropriate milestones and were ready to move into their next grade level. Daily attendance also increased in comparison to previous years where students attended half-day programming. Students that attended both full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten through the pilot and are now in Grade 1 are achieving higher than the class average in alphabet recognition and alphabet sounds.
“We really reflected on the data we would need, both to inform our practice but also to demonstrate the growth we were seeing. It was really important to get that piece right,” Pidwerbeski said. “As we went, we learned there were so many more important pieces like confidence, being self-assured, and all of those things. We felt that social growth needed to be put down on paper as well.”
Her experience is that a full-day program allows teachers to develop relationships and understanding with students more quicky. Students, meanwhile, create true, well-connected friendships with each other because of their time together.
Although she concluded her classroom teaching career in 2021, Pidwerbeski has continued to witness the success of full-day kindergarten through her work with SPSF’s Early Learning Tutor Program. That program pairs struggling readers with experienced tutors who provide one-to-one support as the student builds confidence and moves toward grade-level literacy.
Some of the same students who received an initial boost in her classroom are now receiving her help in taking another step forward to achieving grade-level literacy.
“In that one-to-one setting you can do all kinds of activities,” she said. “You feel like you are making a huge difference. Looking at the level of growth, kids can jump two to four levels in reading during a seven-week time frame — it’s remarkable. For some kids knowing ‘I am a reader’ changes the mindset. Being able to give those kids that extra little bit of a boost can really change their lives.”