Eleven preschoolers are sitting in a circle, making hats out of copies of The Hatchet and The Village Voice. They are preparing to go on a scavenger hunt. Scanning the classroom with binoculars made of cardboard tubes in search of toy animals, these kids are discovering their surroundings through their imagination. They are being taught how to plan and carry out complex activities through interactive learning.
Welcome to the Jumpstart program. In this program, trained college students serving as AmeriCorps members are paired with preschool children for one-on-one tutoring. The nationwide program focuses on creating an environment for teaching school readiness skills to children struggling in learning programs such as Head Start. The corps members sculpt lesson plans based on the individual needs of the children while engaging families through weekly newsletters and meetings.
Children enrolled in preschools affiliated with the Jumpstart program are tested to evaluate their learning and social abilities. Those who do not meet certain criteria suitable for the preschool level participate in the program after school. These children are usually from low-income families, and most lack basic and crucial interaction skills with adults. The corps members serve to develop these skills as adult mentors for these children.
At Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center in Adams Morgan, the program runs every Wednesday and Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. Each of the 11 children in the program is partnered for the year with one of the 11 corps members, 10 of which are GW students.
Junior Anita Galiano, the team leader for the program at the Adams Morgan center, said the overall goal is to spend time with the children and make a positive effect on their lives.
“We want to show them school is fun and that they’re ready to go at it,” Galiano said.
Corps member Jen Lawrence, a freshman, said she wants to help shape the future of the children’s education. Like all members, she has developed a close relationship with her partner, four-year-old Diego. In this way she is able to better understand his learning needs.
“When you become more personal with them, it helps the relationship,” Lawrence said. “You get to know what kind of person they are.”
The day starts with individual reading time from 3 to 3:20 p.m. Each pair reads books of the child’s choice, as the child learns how to hold a book properly. Because the children are not mentally ready to learn to read, their interaction with the book is encouraged. This helps them develop the capacity to express ideas and strengthen language skills.
Lawrence reads Diego a book about a king who saves a princess. Lawrence asks him questions about pictures in the book to allow him to use his creativity in eliciting responses. Creating this intimate setting of shared thoughts and ideas is key to establishing a trusting relationship between the two.
All the children come together for Circle time from 3:20 to 3:50 p.m. Everyone begins by singing the song of Jumpstart, “Ram-Slam-Slam,” followed by a series of other songs to establish a routine the children can become accustomed to while promoting the participation of every child in song and dance. Half of the songs are in Spanish to appeal to the predominantly Hispanic children.
Next comes Choice time, when children choose between playing outside and staying inside until 4:30 p.m. Diego chooses to play football with his classmates and two male corps members. Playing outside allows him to improve his social skills, including getting along with others in a group setting.
Choosing to play indoors allows the children to strengthen their literacy and artistic skills. They can choose from such activities as reading, drawing at the coloring station and making postcards.
Small-group activity starts at 4:30 p.m. and lasts until 5. Every week the program plans a different focus on the development of special skills. This week’s focus is learning how to plan and carry out complex activities. Last Wednesday, the children made binoculars out of cardboard tubes in preparation for Friday’s scavenger hunt.
During the hunt, Lawrence asks Diego to find various toy animals scattered throughout the classroom. Diego in turn reports to Lawrence what he found through his binoculars. The connection between planning what material was needed for the hunt and the result of going on an imaginary hunt gives the children a sense of management. They learn that in order to accomplish something, a series of tasks must first be completed.
“They’re learning how to solve their own problems with conflict resolution,” GW sophomore Kelly Keehan said.
At 5 p.m., the children gather in a circle and sing a goodbye song to each person. Afterwards, corps members discuss the daily activities with their respective partner’s family. Included in the discussion are the child’s accomplishments, the skills that need further development and tips for reading with the child.
Jumpstart program coordinator Lisa Feiertag serves as the communication link between the individual program sites, the main D.C. office in McPherson Square and the national office. She recruits college students and coaches, mentors corps members and monitors the progress at each site.
Jumpstart is affiliated with the federal work-study program. The demands of being a corps member exceed the basic requirements of a work-study office job. Students spend the first two weeks in job training. As members of AmeriCorps, they must complete 300 hours within a year to be eligible for the education award.
But these demands are often overshadowed by the rewards of being a mentor for Jumpstart.
Freshman Jennifer Kleuskens had been involved with programs similar to Jumpstart throughout high school. She said she finds joy in making a difference in the children’s lives.
“In the end you help their self-esteem,” she said.
GW sophomore Rey Quevedo said what the corps members offer the children most of all is guidance through friendship.
“We give them a little change from the repetitiveness of the school day,” Quevedo said. “We’re different from teachers; we’re all friends. Along the way, we let them know what’s right and wrong.”