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Mentor Program Gives Head Start Youngsters An Added Jump Start

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An energetic 3-year-old, Keith doesn't hold back when there's a question before the group. "I be nice to my sister," he blurts out when the preschoolers are asked about good behavior.

It's Keith's forceful personality, however, that Dawn Hunt, his new mentor, hopes to soften a bit. In a classroom at the Edward C. Mazique Parent-Child Center here, she helps him work alongside a quiet little girl to build a Lego tower that reaches over the children's heads, and encourages him not to accuse his young playmate when the colorful plastic blocks fall.

"He's very bright, but he has to have everything his way," said Ms. Hunt, who learned during her training for this program, called Jumpstart, that her ability to be patient would make her a good match for Keith.

"I don't want him to be placed anywhere just because of his behavior," she adds, referring to special education in public school. "Hopefully, someone will be able to keep up with him in the classroom."

Ms. Hunt, an education major at Howard University, is one of 40 Washington-area college students who have joined Jumpstart, a 20-month mentoring program for preschoolers who are enrolled in the federal Head Start program or other child-care centers serving low-income children.

Children who are struggling--such as those who are very withdrawn or, as in Keith's case, those who demand individual attention--are referred to Jumpstart by their teachers so they can get the extra help they need to be ready for kindergarten.

Though new to Washington this fall, Jumpstart was created in 1993 in New Haven, Conn., by two Yale University students who spent their summers working with children at a camp in New York state. The students, Rebecca Weintraub and Aaron Lieberman, were troubled that the relationships they built with children over several weeks came to an abrupt end when the campers climbed on the buses to go home.

"We were looking at trying to develop a continuous model of serving these children," said Ms. Weintraub, who now directs the Washington program.

Encouraged by Edward Zigler, a Yale psychology professor and one of the founders of Head Start, the students designed their one-on-one mentoring program by first interviewing teachers working at the Zigler Head Start Center at Yale. "[The teachers] always felt that there were some students they couldn't reach, some that didn't have enough social skills to be successful in school," Ms. Weintraub said.

Teachers also complained that other mentoring programs they were familiar with often fizzled out after the initial enthusiasm.

Not Just a Job

From its humble beginnings as a project run out of Ms. Weintraub's dormitory room, Jumpstart now operates in four East Coast cities--Boston, and New York, along with New Haven and Washington--with a total of 240 corps members and an annual budget of $2.2 million. The program is serving 240 youngsters this year.

An AmeriCorps program, Jumpstart also receives federal work-study money, as well as corporate donations and foundation grants. The mentors receive a stipend--$1,000 during the school year, and $2,500 during the summer, when the program runs all week instead of two days a week.

In addition to working in the classroom, the mentors keep journals about their students and plan informal activities that are designed to include the children's parents.

Laura Brito, an AmeriCorps member and a sophomore at Yale, said that the rapport she developed with a parent was just as important as her relationship with the little girl, named Crystal.

"[The mother] knew I wasn't just doing a job," said Ms. Brito, who is a mentor in New Haven. "What did it was stopping by her house one time when Crystal didn't show up."

Working on the Basics

For Head Start students, Jumpstart extends the school day by two hours, running from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Children from child-care programs are also escorted over to the Jumpstart classroom by their mentors.

The mentors and the children--usually 10 of each--meet in a classroom to read, sing songs, and work on projects that often correspond to what the students are learning in the regular Head Start program. A team leader is also present to oversee activities.

Once a month, mentors meet with the preschool teachers to talk about how the children are progressing and to get ideas for more projects.

In the summer, the program expands from a one-on-one arrangement to classes of 20 children with four mentors in order to accommodate more children, especially those who have never been to preschool.

The mentors also spend the summer months focusing on specific skills children will need in kindergarten, such as learning to talk to a teacher and other "basic things that adults assume children know how to do," Ms. Weintraub said.

Career Development

Naturally, Jumpstart's practical experience attracts college students who are majoring in education or child development. But other corps members are studying medicine, business, and foreign policy.

Jumpstart founders and mentors agree that one of the program's strengths is its extensive "future teachers" training curriculum. Before they are ever paired with a child, the college students spend weeks learning about child-development theory and teaching techniques. They also observe the children they'll be working with.

"A lot of us love children; that's the ultimate goal," said Quinzey Mason, a graduate student in special education at Howard University and a team leader at Washington's Mazique center. "But Jumpstart offers a process."

Mr. Zigler also helped the Jumpstart founders design a program evaluation. Early results from the New Haven site, released earlier this year, showed that Jumpstart children had fewer behavior problems in the classroom and scored higher on a test that measures school readiness, when compared with preschoolers who had been referred to the program but could not get in because there weren't enough corps members.

Additional research is being conducted, and there are plans to follow a cohort of children into elementary school to study long-term effects.

Expansion of Jumpstart beyond the four current cities is also being considered. The national office in Boston often receives requests for Jumpstart from Head Start centers throughout the country.

"I'd love to open Jumpstart Hawaii," Ms. Weintraub said.

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Web Resources
  • --> The U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services Head Start Web site includes statistics and other information about the program, including how many children nationwide benefit from Head Start programs.
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