Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Helping pre-K children get a jumpstart on success

Tags: community engagement, early childhood, early literacy, literacy, neuman

Jillian Rodriguez had been working with a boy named Desmond for weeks trying to get him to recognize the letter “D.” After many failed attempts, it seemed as though the effort was to no avail. However, just as she was ready to throw the towel into the ring, Desmond had a breakthrough.

 “Desmond and I became very close,” said Rodriguez, a U-M senior majoring in sociology and creative writing. “There was a vivid moment where I knew I was making a difference – I was working with him for a few weeks trying to get him to recognize the letter ‘D’ and one day he finally got it. It was great. When he recognized it he said ‘D! D for Desmond!’”

 In many ways Rodriguez’s achievement is also the achievement of Jumpstart—an AmeriCorps program that has recently partnered with the University of Michigan to work with low-income, at-risk preschool students. Jumpstart was originally created at Yale University in 1993 and is now a national non-profit organization.

Typically, the program works with children who are one year away from kindergarten, and hopes to strengthen their language, literacy, and social skills. Student volunteers from the University of Michigan, led by team leaders like Rodriguez, work in teams of five-to-eight to enact the Jumpstart curriculum at a preschool. Jumpstart only works with preschools that are non-profits and that serve low-income and at-risk students. 

“The goal of the program is to help every child succeed at school,” Jumpstart Site Manager Teri Hogg explained. “The goals for the individual child are for them to be able to recognize letters, hear the sounds in words, and be able to distinguish words that rhyme. Alliteration is a key point as well because they are able to hear the beginning sounds of words and are able to segment words and put them back together. We also teach the young student how to recognize upper and lower case letters.”

The possibility of achieving a partnership between Jumpstart and U-M was started in the spring of 2008 when Susan Neuman, professor of educational studies, initiated the process. Thanks to Neuman’s efforts, the partnership officially began in August of that same year. Soon after the launch, volunteer students from many areas of study joined Jumpstart—sometimes leading to a refreshed perspective on careers in education.

“Jumpstart not only takes School of Education students, but students from all parts of the university,” Neuman said. “After some of these students are done with Jumpstart they say they want to go into education for the element of making a difference. Every year we’ll have three or four kids talk about changing their majors as a result of this project.” 

One of the students that seemed to have been truly moved by her experience is Rodriguez, who not only encountered special moments from Desmond, but a host of others.

“It’s probably the best day of my week,” Rodriguez said of her days at Jumpstart. 

However bright and fulfilling the work of Jumpstart seems to be, there is a serious side to the project. Given the mission of the program, and the children’s background, the heartbreaking stories known to the staggered but not broken volunteers are enough to serve as the most poignant recruiting tools for interested college students. 

Time for Tots, a partnering preschool with Jumpstart, takes the mission of a preschool to another level. The school is designed to serve as “a free therapeutic daycare for infants and pre-school children—to homeless parents participating in a local shelter program in Washtenaw County.”

“I was very nervous initially,” Rodriguez said. “I had never been in that situation. They ended up being the sweetest kids. It was obvious they weren’t getting the kind of role models they needed. It was very jarring and sometimes we would need hours to recoup from the emotional toll.” 

The program is as emotionally demanding as it is rewarding. But as Hogg illustrates, the positions that the Michigan students are filling are as valuable as they are unique.

“It’s a more interesting job than say, working in the cafeteria or checking out books,” said Hogg. “It’s a little more mentally stimulating. Especially if they want to go into a service oriented career. Whether its psychology, social work, or education, it really is attractive to those kinds of students. And really, it’s fun work.”

As exemplified by kids like Desmond, Jumpstart doesn't just benefit the volunteers, but also the students and teachers at preschools like Time for Tots or the Perry Nursery School—another participating school in Ann Arbor.

“It’s been fabulous,” said head teacher and Jumpstart liaison at the Perry Nursery School Amber Mahaney. “The children look forward to it everyday. I’ve seen huge, huge improvements. The letter recognition and sight recognition has all improved tremendously. The vocabulary with the ESL children has been great too. The boys who are interested in reading, now want to act out the stories and retell them.”

As a teacher at Perry Nursery School for about eight years, Mahaney has worked with children at the school prior to Jumpstart’s arrival and knows the difference the program can make.

“Before you might have had one or two children who would have been able to recognize small words because their parents worked with them. But now you have many children who can read or are at the kindergarten level, which is great.”

In the end, for the those who work at schools like the Perry Nursery School, it isn’t just about developing the children’s reading capabilities – forming relationships becomes paramount. And for the children at the Perry Nursery School, the Jumpstart volunteers are something to look forward to.

“Every morning in our large groups they’ll ask ‘is Jumpstart coming?’ If I have to tell them ‘no’ then they all go ‘aww!’ The children look forward to it everyday and when they don’t come the children get sad,” said Mahaney. “They really like Jumpstart.”  

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