Virtual kindergarten program keeps Philly kids smiling — and sets them up for success

August 5, 2022
a teacher reads a book in a virtual classroom

It's not easy to get a room full of 5-year-olds to pay attention. It's even trickier when the 5-year-olds are in 25 different rooms.

For Glenza Lowman, charming these kids comes naturally. During this year's Summer Kindergarten Transition Program, she read "The Giant Jelly Bean Jar" to a captivated Zoom classroom.

"Because she is such an engaging storyteller, the children were absolutely glued to their screens," said Casey Henderson, a research associate at the Penn Child Research Center. The center contributed to the monthlong summer program, run by the School District of Philadelphia, for the second year in a row.

Lowman is one of three superstar kindergarten teachers reading to kids in the program, which serves up to a thousand kids.

Henderson worked with Katie Barghaus, the executive director of the Penn Child Research Center, to contribute activities and information to the district’s summer program, which were pulled from the center’s Conquering Kindergarten initiative. Included in the  district's kindergarten report card, Conquering Kindergarten focuses on 14 social-emotional learning skills shown to help children succeed in school and in life. Skills range from having a positive attitude toward learning and cooperating with others to working independently and persisting through difficult tasks. “If you can’t sit still, if you can’t follow directions, it’s hard to focus on traditional academic skills like counting," said Barghaus. 

The resources were designed to be practical, free, and easily accessible so that families and teachers could use them sustainably to support children.

"They are low-burden activities,” said Barghaus. “They're nudges. They're about shifting mindsets and behaviors with how we interact with kids. You don’t always need to go to Michaels and spend $50 on arts and crafts materials." The initiative plans to add a custom toolkit generator to the website, which will provide families and teachers with a customized toolkit of supports based on their particular child or classroom's needs.

The district established the virtual kindergarten program in 2021 to set kids up for success in the fall — in particular, the program aims to serve kids who have never been in a traditional classroom setting before. That can be intimidating for both the students and their parents. 

“It’s their first time in ‘real school,’ which can be scary,” said Henderson. “To have some time with an awesome teacher can allay some of those fears and make you feel like part of a community before you even set foot in the door.”

When led by a teacher like Lowman, story time can show the connection between reading and social-emotional learning. Expert teachers know how to draw out a book’s themes and talking points. 

A story about jelly beans, for example, will resonate with a kid because kids love candy. But a teacher knows that the subtext of the story is about how to have confidence in a group setting, so the teacher reads the book in a way that connects that idea to a child’s own experience. “Have you ever had to speak up in a group? How did that make you feel?" the teacher pauses to ask, encouraging the students to show confidence in a group setting — to be characters in the story as it unfolds.

Barghaus notes a continued hesitance about gathering in person, especially since parents only recently got the green light to vaccinate their young children. 

“The virtual capacity right now offers a way to reach people that we otherwise could not,” she said. The program prioritizes an accessible format for working families, taking place three days a week with a half-day schedule, including additional activities both live and asynchronous. 

Barghaus hopes to see the framework of Conquering Kindergarten expanded outside of Philadelphia, as well as expanded down to Pre-K and upwards to third grade. For now, a Zoom room of excited 5-year-olds engaging with a book that highlights a social-emotional learning skill is a great way to help kids get started on the road to conquering kindergarten.

“The best thing about this age group is their positivity about learning and education,” said Henderson. “They want to learn and they’re excited to be there. It’s a great first step to bridging this long-standing gap between early educational experiences and kindergarten, which is the portal to public education.” 

Photos by Jackie Russo, featuring Glenza Lowman.