Early Childhood

College Students Help Jump-Start Preschoolers’ Learning

By Linda Jacobson — December 13, 2000 6 min read
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During “choice time,” preschoolers at Linda Vista School scatter to different corners of the room to pick an activity, dragging their college-age pals behind them.

A few girls head for the dress-up and pretend-kitchen area. One little boy gets help stringing beads from his adult friend. Meanwhile, mentor Jen Boynton sits on the floor to play marbles with 4-year-old Emmanuel Carrillo.

The 12 college students, who are AmeriCorps members, spend more than an hour twice a week with their 12 young charges. They take part in a group song, read books, and break for a snack.

“I’ve never had any experience with children,” Ms. Boynton said as she helped Emmanuel glue dried pasta onto a piece of construction paper one day recently. “But I wanted to do something that was effective.”

Such one-on-one attention is rare in early-childhood classrooms, but it’s the centerpiece of Jumpstart, a Boston-based program that pairs federal Work-Study college students with children in Head Start and other programs serving low-income preschoolers.

“If a child can connect to one person, they can overcome unbelievable odds,” said Sandra J. Ulrich, the principal of Linda Vista, a preschool and kindergarten facility in California’s 25,350-student Ontario-Montclair school district.

Part of a partnership with Pitzer College, a small liberal arts college in Claremont, Calif., the Jumpstart program at Linda Vista began this fall as part of a long-range plan to expand the nonprofit program throughout the country.

Ambitious Plans

Founded by Aaron Lieberman in 1993 when he was a Yale University student, Jumpstart operates in 11 cities, including New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. The program, which is serving more than 1,500 children this school year, has a $7 million annual budget that comes mostly from private funding and some government grants.

As Jumpstart’s chief executive officer, Mr. Lieberman is shifting the growth of the program into high gear. He plans to form partnerships with more than 50 colleges and universities over the next five years—and, if that goal is met, he expects the number of children served each year to increase to 15,000. Jumpstart began setting up college partnerships in 1997 and now has seven universities involved.

To reach that many preschoolers, Jumpstart had to devise a new strategy. The management of the Jumpstart sites originally followed a corporate model, with everything being handed down from the headquarters.

But program organizers decided that allowing the colleges to run the sites and hire their own people might be more effective. “We said, ‘Let’s let universities own this, and we’ll create the training and the support,’ ” Mr. Lieberman said.

The University of California, Los Angeles, and San Francisco State University were the first two campuses to enter the program under the new approach.

While many students majoring in something other than education participate as Jumpstart corps members, most colleges see the program as an opportunity for future teachers to get real-world experience. And the college students receive both AmeriCorps awards and Work-Study money.

“The impact on our students is exciting,” said Richard A. Corrigan, the president of San Francisco State. Mr. Corrigan discovered Jumpstart through his involvement with President Clinton’s America Reads Challenge, in which AmeriCorps members tutor students in reading.

Mr. Corrigan believes the program has the potential to improve teacher-turnover rates in inner-city schools. When students who have worked as Jumpstart corps members “go into urban school districts,” he said, “they’ll be prepared.”

Hector Ramirez, a senior at Pitzer College who is also working at Linda Vista, said he values the chance to develop curriculum. “I’m thinking about being a teacher,” he said. “It’s good for me to get some experience and some confidence.”

Teachers and directors at the schools and centers where the corps members work have also grown to view the college students as more than just babysitters who give them a short break from the classroom. “Some corps members are the adopted sons and daughters of these centers,” Mr. Lieberman said.

To get an accurate picture of a child’s needs, his or her assigned corps member also spends a couple of hours a week simply observing the child.

Children who are handpicked for the Linda Vista program often represent those who are somewhere in the academic middle of their classes. They are not the most advanced or the most troubled children, but they have needs.

Jumpstart schools have flexibility in choosing which pupils will participate in the program. At Linda Vista, school officials decided that the youngsters who were really struggling needed more teacher attention and that participating in Jumpstart would deprive them of some of such time.

Although the corps members receive about 30 hours of advance training, as well as ongoing staff development, they are not professionals, and there are limits to what they can do. For instance, they cannot help children who have severe behavior problems or learning disabilities.

“We don’t train them in special education,” said Jessamyn Luiz, Jumpstart’s director of affiliate operations.

‘Maximizing the Impact’

Jumpstart’s expansion plans include adjustments that are designed to “maximize the impact” of the program at each local site, according to the business plan.

For one, corps members used to be required to sign up for two years—a difficult commitment for many students. Now, students have the option of staying with the program for one year, which translates into 300 hours of planning and class time over two semesters.

Second, Jumpstart is considering, on a pilot basis, pairing corps members with two children instead of one. The two preschoolers would be in separate sessions that would operate for shorter periods of time. The one-to- one relationships would be preserved, but more children would be reached.

While Jumpstart has always focused on early literacy and social skills, the program adopted a more specific, “outcome based” model in 1998 that is based on High/Scope, a well-respected early-childhood-education curriculum.

The new guidelines, called School Success Outcomes, include such skills as “recognizes and produces rhymes,” “knows about books and how books work,” and “plans and carries out complex activities.”

With that structure in place, Jumpstart has also begun a longitudinal study of children from the New York City and Boston sites to examine the long-term impact on children who participate in the program. The research is being conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.

A small evaluation of 200 children was conducted during the 1998-99 school year in four cities: Boston, New Haven, Conn., New York, and Washington. In the study, which compared Jumpstart participants with nonparticipants, all of the children in the sample scored lower than would be expected for their age when they started the program in the fall. By spring, all had made gains, but “the gains were greater for the Jumpstart participants in a number of different skill areas,” such as understanding speech, speaking, and expressing choices, according to a summary of the study.

‘A New Way To Grow’

To accomplish everything outlined in the growth plan, Jumpstart will also need to raise a significant amount of money—about $20 million—over the next five years.

The program, Mr. Lieberman said, is moving away from depending exclusively on government funding and becoming more of a public-private partnership.

For example, earlier this year, Jumpstart launched Schoolsuccess.net—a for-profit, Internet-based service that offers early-childhood educational products for parents and teachers. Jumpstart officials expect revenue from that enterprise to reach $6.5 million by 2005 and that money will go toward building a strong financial base for the organization.

“It’s really hard to build your own nonprofit,” Mr. Lieberman said. “We needed to figure out a new way to grow.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as College Students Help Jump-Start Preschoolers’ Learning

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