Starting off right

Program pairs college students with preschoolers
Thursday, March 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:09 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Still sleepy from her afternoon nap, the 3-year-old widens her big blue eyes and jumps from her chair with a smile: Her tutor is waving from across the room.

Every Wednesday afternoon, nine preschoolers at Hand-in-Hand Learning Center on Bearfield Road welcome Jumpstart volunteers as if they were older siblings, the children eager to start playing — and learning.

Jumpstart is a national program founded in 1994 that began offering tutoring last fall to at-risk preschool children in Columbia. Through its partnership with Head Start, the program provides on-site mentoring services that complement child-care programs at Hand-in-Hand, Park Avenue Head Start and Nora Stewart Nursery School. The goal is to help children from low-income families who have parents who are unable to offer consistent support at home.

Jumpstart has helped more than 6,000 children in 44 communities across the country and has plans to serve 50 communities by 2005; nearly 1,600 college students are serving as mentors on 50 different campuses.

Statistics show why efforts such as Jumpstart are important, advocates say.

Almost 50 percent of children from low-income areas start first grade at skill levels up to two years behind their peers , according to the Carnegie Foundation’s Starting Points, an organization that conducts education surveys, and teachers report that 35 percent of U.S. kindergartners start first grade lacking basic skills necessary for success.

Only 19 percent of young children living in low-income families show at least three of the signs of developing literacy compared to 45 percent of wealthier children, according to a U.S. Department of Education literacy survey from 1999.

Jumpstart mentors focus on meeting every child’s needs through one-on-one


"The first semester is dedicated to getting to know the kids and their weaknesses and strengths in order to tailor the second part of the school year to their real needs,” said Hillary Fuhrman, a team leader with Jumpstart who coordinates Wednesday afternoon activities at Hand-in-Hand.

The focus, she said, is on developing language-literacy and socialization skills. “Our activities range from recognizing and making rhymes, problem solving, beginning reading and writing and planning complex tasks. We also stress the importance of learning how to interact in a classroom environment.”

The mentors were recruited from MU during Summer Welcome and come from various majors. There are 37 students serving as tutors, and all of them attended six weeks of training that included lessons on child behavior, social development, language and literacy. The students encourage the children to think school is fun through interactive activities.

Volunteer Adrianne Martin, 18, who is majoring in psychology at MU, said the positive support preschool children receive can be an effective way of preventing attention and learning disorders later in life.

“It is so important to give the kids a good start-off; most of children’s disorders develop from a social reason, and therefore can be cured with love and attention, not with medicines,” Martin said.

For “circle time” at Hand-in-Hand, the mentors and students sit together on a rug covered in alphabet letters and cartoon pictures of people and animals with words in Spanish and English.

Martin reads a poem that teaches kids to say “hello” and “goodbye” in different languages. She holds up cardboard strips of the greetings written in Korean, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Every word is included in the poem and sung by the kids and volunteers.

Martin points at the cardboard strips repeatedly to focus on the spelling of the word. A visual representation is provided so that the children can associate the words and letters to their meaning. Foreign terms are combined with colorful figures next to the English word so that the children can grasp the connection.

Throughout the activities, the children are encouraged to become confident participants.

“It is important for the kids to acquire self confidence to interact in class and ask questions to the teacher to clarify a point,” Fuhrman said. “Sometimes their shyness can be an obstacle to learning.”

Learning how to participate in class, recognizing and combining letters into words and enhancing the variety of vocabulary are all fundamental skills for the children to acquire.

But Jumpstart’s work does not end there. A major factor that contributes to success in school is the ability to read proficiently.

The mentors try to teach more than just the mechanics of reading. Books are presented as a source for gathering, selecting and retaining information. Mentors help the children recognize components of stories and make connections to the world around them.

“The children are encouraged to choose the book they like the most and try to tell back the story to their mentor after being read to,” Fuhrman said.

Part of the weekly sessions is dedicated to enhancing creativity. There is also a surprise activity. On recent surprise was building a puppet out of a paper bag. Glue, pompoms, cardboard, strips of tissue paper and markers are spread across the Formica table and mixed with a sprinkle of fantasy.

When volunteer Matt Castulik, 18, an MU freshman in computer science, cuts out shark teeth for his puppet and starts animating it, the children explode with laughter. Such group experiences are fundamental to the success of the learning program.

The bond between each mentor and their student is evident, and the afternoon’s activities end with a feedback session with each child. The volunteers use these comments to tailor activities for the next session.

There are also rewards for the volunteers. Jumpstart director Chrissie Bennett said the experience is “very formative on a personal level; it’s amazing to see how the volunteers themselves have grown in these months. Some of them have even changed majors after starting to work with us; they have discovered sides of their personalities they didn’t know about.”

Hand-In-Hand program coordinator Maeola Rowles said that teachers also benefit. “The volunteers spend four hours every week in class with their partner to focus on the school material, thus helping the teachers as well because the student-teacher ratio becomes more manageable.”

Shamela Mack, a mother of two Jumpstart students, said her children’s progress is visible and consistent. “I love it,” she said. “Keep up the good work.”

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