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All Saskatoon children deserve an equal start: Saskatoon Public Schools Foundation

Originally published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on Oct 08, 2021

boy writing and reading

“A child who can’t read at grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer.”

American Educational Research Association

Investing in the early years of a child’s education is life-changing. According to the Saskatoon Public Board of Education, 28 per cent of students in Saskatoon Public Schools have not achieved at or above grade level literacy by Grade 3. Saskatchewan also typically ranks in the bottom three provinces for literacy in Canada.

A long-time community leader in the city, Zeba Ahmad is executive director of Saskatoon Public Schools Foundation (SPSF). Founded in 2008, SPSF is an independent charity working in partnership with Saskatoon Public Schools to support students, teachers, schools and communities.

To support children’s literacy, SPSF has launched the All In campaign. The goal of All In is to establish a $5M endowment for literacy initiatives above and beyond government funding, in Saskatoon Public Schools and help these important programs achieve long-term sustainability. All In continues on the work of the $20M Early Learning Equal Start campaign SPSF launched November 2020.

“Through our partnerships with local businesses, organizations and individuals, we build communities in Saskatoon. Our relationship with Saskatoon Public Schools is exceptional,” says Ahmad. In fact, she began with SPSF as a volunteer board member, but Ahmad felt so strongly about the cause that she joined the organization as a full-time employee.

Donations to Early Learning Equal Start and All In will focus on increasing education accessibility for children through full-day pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, Summer Reading Camps and Literacy Tutor programs. The Early Learner Tutor program provides support for struggling readers in Grades 1 to 3 to help them reach grade level reading by Grade 3.

The statistics are startling regarding Grade 3 literacy and how this benchmark parallels challenges in an individual’s later life. A child who cannot read at grade level by Grade 3 is four times less likely to graduate from high school than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Research has also shown that 65 per cent of individuals incarcerated in Canadian prisons have no more than a Grade 8 education.

“Grade 3 is a critical point for literacy and for creating a foundation for later learning. The Early Learner Tutor program is offered at schools across our city. We recognize that there are needs in all neighbourhoods,” says Ahmad.

Jody Glines is the principal of Vincent Massey Community School in the Saskatoon neighbourhood of Massey Place. According to Glines, Community Schools provide an additional boost for young students with resources such as school nutrition programs. “We recognize that families are doing their best and we always have healthy food available for students who need it — whether that’s breakfast, lunch or a snack,” says Glines.

Vincent Massey Community School was one of five elementary schools in core neighbourhoods that piloted SPSF’s full-day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs for four- and five-year-old children.

“Already the benefits of these full-day pre-K and kindergarten programs can be seen. The students have stronger literacy skills and overall readiness for Grade 1. They are more comfortable in a classroom setting,” 

Jody Glines, Principal, Vincent Massey School

Glines has his own personal story of a child who has experienced benefits from the Early Learner Tutor program supported by SPSF. He calls the program “near and dear to my heart.” Glines’ own daughter was experiencing a reading level below her grade level. After seven weeks of one-on-one sessions with a literacy tutor named Mrs. Marsh, Glines says “my daughter now sees herself as a reader.”

The literacy tutors, also known as master teachers, are retired schoolteachers that Glines describes as “wonderful human beings.” Tutoring sessions are offered at no cost for the students and their families and, if a child changes schools, the tutor will move with them to the new school. The program also has homework components that are meant to engage parents and caregivers.

“I want to share with the public just how impactful these SPSF programs are for young students. It’s a recipe for success,” says Glines, speaking as both a school principal and a parent.

In November 2020, The Brownlee Family Foundation made a historic donation of $10M to SPSF to support Early Learning Equal Start. On October 5th, 2021, SPSF announced long-time donors Pat Boot and Catherine Weenk will match donations to achieve a $5M All In Endowment.

You can make a difference in the lives of Saskatoon children.