Rayna Jackson/UCLA
UCLA students, including one dressed as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, hosted a literacy fair on campus for kids from eight preschools located in low-income areas across L.A. The UCLA students work the entire school year with these children.   

Dickson Court rang with the laughter and the excited yelps of preschool children Wednesday, May 17, as they burned off excess energy with a game of tag. While UCLA students in bright red T-shirts emblazoned with the AmeriCorps logo read animatedly to small groups, others joined the little ones in doing arts and crafts projects based on historically themed books as parents and teachers looked on.

Along the perimeter of Dickson Court, professors and staff looked on quizzically as they navigated around UCLA’s biggest early-education free literacy fair held for more than 400 preschool children, families and teachers from eight preschools around Los Angeles.

The third annual Jumpstart UCLA Literacy Fair,  entitled “Historical Figures: One World, Many Stories,” celebrated local preschoolers’ achievements and featured various interactive literacy activities run by UCLA students.

Rayna Jackson/UCLA
Activities at the fair centered on eight books on historical figures, including Muhammad Ali.

The UCLA Center for Community Learning is the campus’s home for Jumpstart UCLA, an AmeriCorps work-study program for around 80 UCLA undergraduates that promotes literacy among preschool students. UCLA students from all majors are welcome to apply for this one-year program and work at the local preschools. But once a year all the preschoolers and their families are invited to campus.

“UCLA really feels that it is valuable to bring [Jumpstart] children and families to the campus so that the children can see where the corps members go to school,” said Truyen Truan, Jumpstart’s senior director of programming for California. “Corps members instill in the children early on that anything is possible and that they can be UCLA students one day.”

The literacy celebration is just one of the ways that Jumpstart UCLA connects with the local community. Throughout the academic year, AmeriCorps members in the UCLA program work in low-income classrooms to help children develop language, literacy and social skills crucial for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Arianna Rivera/UCLA
One of the books the youngsters enjoyed was about UCLA Coach John Wooden.

As a “super-site” for Jumpstart, UCLA currently has two site managers supervising students who work a total of 25,500 service hours annually year in classrooms at eight preschools in low-income neighborhoods in Santa Monica, Venice, Los Angeles and Culver City.

 Kathy O’Byrne, director at the UCLA Center for Community Learning, said civic engagement programs like Jumpstart UCLA not only address social issues like literacy and poverty in Los Angeles, but are key to students’ undergraduate education.

“Students see firsthand the power of ‘learning by doing’ and thinking critically as hallmarks of a 21st-century college education,” O’Byrne said. “By working in low-income communities of Los Angeles, students learn about issues of diversity, income inequality and policy that impact the futures of our preschoolers.”

It was the hands-on nature of the program that caught the attention of Angelica Castro, a third-year UCLA political science major with a double minor in education, and labor and workplace studies. For Castro, the idea of sitting behind a desk for a work-study job wasn’t appealing.

“Jumpstart UCLA gives me opportunity to get out into the local community and apply what I am learning … from my education minor courses,” Castro said. “It has given me a better idea of the various issues in our education system and how I can help be a part of the solution to help students, who, like me, come from low-income and immigrant families.”

Rayna Jackson/UCLA
UCLA student Angelica Castro, dressed up as Frida Kahlo, shows a child a sketch of the artist.

Growing up in Santa Maria, California, an agricultural community, Castro learned about educational disparities facing immigrants and first-generation students firsthand. She saw many of the kids she grew up with placed in remedial courses; they were rarely offered the necessary resources to graduate. The educational inequities she witnessed often derailed the academic ambitions of many of her peers growing up.

“Every student should have the opportunity to achieve their goals, but there is so much work to be done,” Castro said. “I want to go to graduate school for education and conduct research to find ways to ensure that in the future, the kids I work with will be a part of an education system that not only focuses on promoting equality, but equity as well.”

Guadalupe Placencia, director of a preschool that serves homeless families in transitional housing, gives credit to Jumpstart UCLA students for giving her preschool students the advantage they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

“You can see how our preschoolers are progressing because of the Jumpstart UCLA students,” said Palencia, head of the Bessie and David Pregerson Child Development Center in Westwood. The children who work with UCLA students are not just going into transitional kindergarten or kindergarten, but some of the preschoolers exceed expectations and go directly into the first grade.

“The college kids come in wearing their jeans, T-shirts and sneakers ready to go,” Placencia said. “They get to know all of the children. They come in and sit on the carpet and get dirty with them, which is great because you don’t see a lot of that with teachers.”

To read the entire story, go to the UCLA College website.