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EDUCATION

Getting ready for their first day
of school

Kindergarten preparation programs found to narrow the
school-readiness gap

Mohammad Ismail (centre, red shirt) approaches instructor Angelika Watson in the classroom of their school.

Mohammad Ismail would cry as they reached the fence outside the school in Ajax, Ont. He would throw himself onto the ground and use all the strength a four-year-old can muster to hold onto his mother.

That was six weeks ago.

On Thursday, Mohammad gave his mom a hug, a kiss and a high-five at the gate. Then he walked right into his kindergarten classroom for his final day of a six-week preparation program designed to help children from low-income families or in newcomer households get excited about school – when it begins for real next month.

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Researchers have found that pupils who struggle in the early years of schooling have a much more difficult time catching up. Programs such as the one Mohammad attended this summer are critical in narrowing the school-readiness gap that separates disadvantaged children from their more affluent peers. Ontario's unique two-year kindergarten program is also designed to address the developmental needs of all children. It incorporates two years of full-day, play-based learning.

Mohammad, a strong-willed boy, was eager to share his experiences in the kindergarten classroom at Bolton C. Falby Public School. "I can sing O Canada," he said while working at a table forming Play-Doh. "I made new friends. I read books … I like it."

His instructor, Angelika Watson, said the changes are more nuanced. Mohammad has learned to raise his hand, wait his turn, hang up his backpack and put away his hat in a cubby – all skills needed in a kindergarten classroom.

Mohammad raises his hand to answer a question. Mohammad also learned how to wait his turn, hang up his backpack and put away his hat in a cubby.

Ms. Watson, a fun-loving motherly figure, moved around the classroom on Thursday helping the 14 children use scissors to cut Play-Doh and, in turn, develop their fine motor skills. She encouraged them to do puzzles and build with Lego, developing their eye-hand co-ordination skills. "Inside walking feet, please," she called out to two children entering the room. "Criss-cross applesauce," she said, as she helped children sit on the carpet for story time.

"The academic stuff will come," said Ms. Watson, a program facilitator with the Ontario Early Years YMCA. The program's aim is for children to develop self-regulation skills, which includes the ability to focus, follow instructions and co-operate with peers.

"They will be ready for kindergarten," Ms. Watson added.

The six-week kindergarten preparation program – School's Cool – is run by the YMCA at eight schools in the Durham District School Board, east of Toronto. Other school districts run similar programs that are targeted at children from low-income homes or from vulnerable groups.

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Some of the children entering the program may not know how to hold a pencil or flip through a book. There have been youngsters who could only communicate through grunts.

"It speaks to the need to get these kids into a program prior to school," said Stacey Lepine-Fisher, a manager in the early-years department at the Durham school district. "If they don't have that confidence and they don't have the ability to socialize with their peers then they do tend to struggle."

On Thursday, the 14 children at Bolton C. Falby school celebrated their graduation from the program.

Data from both the Durham public and Catholic schools show that almost all pupils who are enrolled in the program met expectations in language, social, self-regulation and math skills by the end of the six weeks. Less than half entered the program with these skills.

Jane Thompson, manager of child and family development at the YMCA of Greater Toronto, said her organization put the program in place about a decade ago at a school in Durham which had the lowest standardized test scores. (The program was developed by SIRCH Community Services, a non-profit organization in Ontario's Haliburton area.)

Since then, the YMCA has had more applications to the program than spaces available. Officials screen children and their families to determine those who are most in need of the program. It gives children a confidence boost for when they enter kindergarten by teaching them language skills, such as listening to stories and identifying the first letter in their names, and self-help skills such as pulling up their pants after using the bathroom.

"It sounds simple, but for kids to come in and hang up their bag and sit down and actually listen to the teacher and to wait their turn, it's so important," Ms. Thompson said. "If we can put them on the same playing field with their skills development, then they will have the best chance at school success."

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Mohammad's mom, Amale Aldarwish, said she has noticed changes in her son. The family came to Canada from Jordan six years ago and one of Ms. Aldarwish's daughters participated in the program at the time.

She said Mohammad has been attached to her and she was nervous about how he would deal with the separation when he started school. But after the initial few weeks of the summer program, Mohammad started to enjoy attending school, he said. He would dress himself and put on his backpack.

Mohammad celebrates graduation day with his mother and sister.

She said that Mohammad is now listening to instructions and more encouraged to sit down and read through a book with her. He has even made friends and invited them for sleepovers and play dates, she said.

"I've seen a real change," Ms. Aldarwish said. "I'm so excited. I'm relieved. I don't have anxiety like before."

On Thursday, the 14 children at Bolton C. Falby school celebrated their graduation from the program. Parents took pictures of their little ones in graduation caps and receiving certificates. There was celebratory cake and pizza.

Mohammad said he was ready for kindergarten. He was no longer afraid.

"It's going to be fun," he said.

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