A throng of cute preschoolers yelping your name in glee, squeezing up close while you read them a book, appreciating everything about you — for 40 Bruin undergraduates, this is all in a day’s work in UCLA Jumpstart.
Assigned to six preschools that serve low-income families in Westwood, Venice and Santa Monica, UCLA students in the AmeriCorps program help children develop the language, literacy and social skills crucial to success in school — an effort in keeping with Jumpstart’s mission of “working toward the day every child America enters school prepared to succeed.”
Studies have shown that children from low-income communities typically enter kindergarten with vocabulary and other literacy skills far below those of their middle-income counterparts, said Ayla Stern, director of UCLA Jumpstart, which is now in its second year at UCLA.
“If children are already behind when they enter kindergarten, research shows they really never catch up,” said Stern. “Everything we do promotes early-childhood literacy. We want to plant the seed at an early age so that reading is something these children are good at and enjoy all their lives.”
Jumpstart’s hanging-with-cute-kids component is coupled with commitment: Students put in 10 to 12 hours every week throughout fall, winter, and spring quarters, while continuing to keep up with the demands of their undergraduate studies. In return, they earn a work-study paycheck, and some students also earn course credit. Upon completion of 300 hours of service, participants earn a $1,132 Americorps education award. Last year, when 30 Bruins served in Jumpstart, every one of them earned the award.
Jumpstart trainees practice book-reading skills that will keep preschoolers engaged.
UCLA students take 30 hours of intensive pre-training in subjects ranging from early childhood development to social justice, lesson planning and teaching arts and crafts. Training then continues on a monthly basis all year long.
Students form teams of five or six and spend the year working primarily with the same group of three or four children — although the students can also work with other children. To prepare for upcoming sessions, Jumpstart teams spend at least a couple of hours weekly planning activities such as teaching the children to recognize the letters of the alphabet or having them tell stories through pictures — skills that help foster reading and writing when the children are a little older.
“The quality of what our Jumpstart students do is so high,” said Kathy O’Byrne, director of UCLA’s Center for Community Learning (CCL), which oversees the program. “Before they set foot in the classroom, they’ve planned out in detail what they’re going to do,” she said, adding, “At times, the entire front office of the CCL is taken over by students with glue sticks and construction paper getting ready for their preschools the next day.”
That teamwork leads to a remarkable sense of camaraderie, O’Byrne said. “The students become very cohesive ... forming close bonds and true communities.” These bonds help students stick with the demanding program — Jumpstart students have an impressive retention rate of 90 percent, and several students from last year are participating again.
Preparing a lesson plan.
Mutual support also comes in handy at those times when it’s not all fun-and-games — as students working at Bessie Pregerson Child Development Center have learned. Some of the children at that preschool live in the Salvation Army’s Westwood Transitional Village, a residential housing program for families that have struggled with homelessness.
“At first,” recalled Hee Do Jang, who led the Jumpstart team at the center last year before graduating, “some of the kids were really shy — not with just the Jumpstart members but with other classmates as well.”
The team found that teaching them academics wasn’t enough, Jang said. “We taught them social and emotional skills.” Eventually, the children opened up more to their teachers and formed friendships with each another.
“The kids were so interested and eager to participate,” Jang said ... “and that kept me motivated. It was a joy to go into the classroom every morning. It totally made my day start off great.”
Jumpstart students have had a measurable impact on children at all six schools. In surveys completed three times a year, the preschoolers’ regular teachers have reported progress on many fronts. Children, they found, were able to engage in more conversations on more complex topics. Many who started the school year speaking no English became actively bilingual.
“It was just awesome,” said Las Doradas Preschool teacher Raina Flores of working with Jumpstart students last year. Impressed by how organized the students were in everything from following lesson plans to exuding boundless energy and enthusiasm, Flores said, “I even learned from them ... they brought in a lot of new ideas.”
O’Bryne is equally impressed. “It is phenomenal what these undergraduates do. They carve time out of very busy schedules to be there for these kids.”
But the benefits are reciprocal, she added. “At the same time that our students are making a real difference in these kids’ lives, they are themselves learning and maturing. This has been a very meaningful and productive partnership.”