Undergrads Spark Early Childhood Learning
By Jill Gambon
Inside Classroom 2 at Children’s Corner preschool, all eyes are fixed on Miss Cassie as she leads the students in a poem about their 10 fingers. The children, all between the ages of 3 and 5, recite the poem and act out the words, splaying their fingers wide, hiding their hands behind their backs or folding them neatly in front of them. As soon as they finish, a cry of “Let’s do it again!” erupts.
On this afternoon, UMass Lowell junior Cassie Hopkins is leading seven student volunteers who are helping to teach the preschoolers. The group from UMass Lowell is participating in Jumpstart, a national program that pairs college students and others with preschools in low-income communities to help teach language, literacy and social skills. For Hopkins, an English major with a minor in education, the hands-on classroom experience has helped solidify her career plans: She’s certain now that she wants to be a teacher. “I’m so glad I did this. I wanted to see if I liked teaching,” she says. “This has been an eye-opener for me.”
Founded at Yale University in 1993 and now with branches at colleges across the country, Jumpstart arrived on the UMass Lowell campus last August. The program uses a national, research-based curriculum to help prepare preschoolers for kindergarten and close the so-called achievement gap that disproportionately affects children living in poverty.
Jumpstart is aligned with the AmeriCorps national community service program, so students can earn stipends and recognition for participating. Thirty-five UMass Lowell undergraduates are now enrolled in the program, some of them earning work-study money, some earning AmeriCorps credit, others are simply volunteering.
“Our basic goal is to help the preschoolers develop language and literacy skills so they are ready for success,” says Leslie Randall, the Jumpstart site manager at UMass Lowell. “We’re thrilled with the way the preschoolers and their teachers have accepted the Jumpstart volunteers.”
College students have to apply to the Jumpstart program and commit to a minimum of 200 hours (300 hours for AmeriCorps credit) over the course of a year. To prepare for their work in the preschools, the students receive training in advance of their placements and do extensive curriculum planning before their twice-weekly classroom visits. Most participants devote between nine and 14 hours per week to the program.
“This group does so much preparation,” says Graduate School of Education Interim Dean Anita Greenwood. “This is great experience for our students. It builds their confidence. Teaching is not an abstraction to them – they are actually doing it.”
Senior history major Derek Patno is trying to get as much hands-on classroom experience as he can. Patno, who also has an internship at Lowell High School, is planning on a teaching career. The Jumpstart program has given him a unique perspective on working with young children. “The most interesting thing to me is the way the kids are so accepting. They are so happy to see you. You can see you make an impact on them.”
The presence of the Jumpstart students is earning high marks from the preschool teachers. “The Jumpstart students are a godsend,” says Ali Hollowell, an assistant teacher at Children’s Corner, which is located in Lowell and run by the anti-poverty agency Community Teamwork Inc. “The kids love them. They wake up from their naps every day asking if it’s a Jumpstart day.”
On a typical visit, each Jumpstart student works with up to three preschoolers. They read a book together and then the children do activities like drawing, creative play, puzzles or games that reinforce the book’s vocabulary or concepts. At circle time, the entire group does activities that promote literacy and language development under the direction of a Jumpstart student leader.
Math major Matt Desmond believes getting involved with the program as a freshman is giving him a jump start on his career plans. Desmond, who hopes to teach middle or high school math, says witnessing how far the preschoolers have come in just a few months is the best part of the experience. “Seeing their progress is so rewarding,” he says.
UMass Lowell students are currently working with three local preschools. Given the rapid acceptance of the program both on and off campus, Randall is hoping to expand next year and grow the number of student participants to 45.
Recruitment for next year’s Jumpstart team will get under way in March. To apply, go to: www.jstart.org/apply