Eastern Students Provide a ‘Jumpstart’ to Local Preschoolers

Jeniel Edmonds is an Eastern Jumpstart volunteer who majors in early childhood education and psychology

 In a Willimantic, CT, classroom, more than a dozen preschoolers listen eagerly as an Eastern Connecticut State University student reads a book to them. It’s a ritual that both the student and children are familiar with, and when reading time is over, they will transition to other activities with their teacher. It can be hard to handle a room full of excitable preschoolers, but the Eastern student has been well trained, thanks to a national early-education program called Jumpstart.

Jumpstart, an AmeriCorps affiliate program with a strong chapter at Eastern, was created in 1993 to provide preschoolers from low-income areas the tools they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. By providing language, literacy and social activities, Jumpstart aims to help preschoolers get an equal start in life regardless of zip code.

“Kids from under-resourced communities enter kindergarten 60 percent behind their classmates from more affluent areas,” says Meaghan Penrod, the Jumpstart site manager at Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE). “You’d think that gap would close when they go to elementary school, but it doesn’t – it just gets wider.”

Eastern students who apply for Jumpstart are interviewed and divided into teams that work together in local classrooms. Each goes through several weeks of early childhood education training, as well as classes about the Willimantic community and the families who live there. Every team is expected to follow an assigned curriculum, as well as create stimulating activities to engage the children in their classrooms.

“A lot of our own personal time is spent planning and creating things for the children we teach,” says Jumpstart member Kimberly Vitka, an elementary education and liberal studies major at Eastern. “Once we’re in the classroom, we’re responsible for teaching the session plan for that week.”

Some of this year’s cohort of Eastern Jumpstart volunteers pose for a group photo.

These plans engage children in educational activities such as reading, name writing, singing vocabulary words, and active or dramatic play. Arts and crafts projects and reading time are particularly popular among the preschoolers.

Vitka and 41 other students dedicate personal time to their students and the classrooms. For most of the volunteers, teaching children and helping the community is both a potential future occupation and a lifestyle.

“My involvement in Jumpstart has made a tremendous impact on my life,” says Frances Zelez, an early childhood education and English major. “Getting the opportunity to further a child’s education is one of the most fulfilling opportunities I could ask for.”

The time commitment for students involved in Jumpstart is significant. If they join AmeriCorps and donate 300 volunteer hours, they receive a federal stipend at the end of the year that goes toward books, housing or tuition. Non-AmeriCorps volunteers commit to 200 hours of service. With more than 40 volunteers, Eastern students donate thousands of hours to preschoolers over the course of a year — all of which are in under-resourced areas.

Despite the hefty commitment, Jumpstart has exploded in popularity at Eastern. When the program first came to campus in 2014, 21 students enrolled. Now, five years later, the number has doubled. Although many students are early education majors, any student is welcome to apply. This year, the Jumpstart members at Eastern major in everything from art to environmental earth science, united by their passion for educating children.

Tai Adorno majors in elementary education and women’s and gender studies.:

Jendayi Nelson, who majors in general studies and communication, originally applied to Eastern as a pre-nursing major. She cites Jumpstart as the reason for her shift in major and career aspirations. “If it wasn’t for Jumpstart, I wouldn’t have found what truly makes me happy,” she said. “Some of my peers realized this was not the field for them, but for me, it was simply reinforcement that the classroom is where I belong.”

Jumpstart has been a national success, with classrooms across the country reporting marked improvements. Ninety-one percent of children in the program made significant language and literacy gains last year, according to Jumpstart teachers. In Willimantic, based on assessments by the CCE, children attending Jumpstart show significant gains in areas critical for academic success.

Aside from embedded support in local community classrooms, Jumpstart also gets involved with children’s events. Eastern Jumpstart members recently hosted an event in collaboration with AmeriCorps MLK Day of Service, in which more than 100 children painted “kindness rocks,” which are rocks painted with inspirational messages that are meant to be left in unexpected places. The children hid their rocks throughout the East Brook Mall, and then returned for story time, leaving with a free book.

“People come up to us at community events all the time and say how much Jumpstart has impacted their lives,” says Penrod. “A grandmother once came up to me and told me how her granddaughter had previously been struggling in preschool, but now that she’s involved with Jumpstart, she’s thriving.”

Stories like these are common. Lizbeth Macias, an elementary education and liberal studies major, reflected on her reasons for joining Jumpstart and the passion she now has for children’s education. “Jumpstart intrigued me from the start due to its mission statement, that all kids should have an equal start,” said Macias. “Children are the future. They hold tomorrow in their hands. They deserve access to education regardless of their socio-economic background.”

Written by Raven Dillon