Feature

Literacy program uses volunteers to help preschoolers get ready for kindergarten

Jumpstart's budget is in danger of Trump administration cuts despite good outcomes

This feature story is part of a series focused exclusively on literacy. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.

On Mondays, a group of Boston preschool students at the Rafael Hernández School are impatient. By mid-morning, they’re already asking how long it will be until their classes are over. Not because they want to go home, but because they want to get to their after-school literacy program run by Jumpstart in the school’s basement.

On Tuesdays, the students return to their regular teachers with fresh excitement for literacy. They use words they didn’t know the day before and when asked where they learned them, they smile proudly and say Jumpstart.

Anita Torres, the Hernández School’s afterschool coordinator and a classroom paraprofessional, said the impact of Jumpstart among participating students is clear. The Hernández School operates under a dual language model and for 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds and first-graders, reading is taught exclusively in Spanish. The Jumpstart students read in English during the twice-per-week program, rounding out their early literacy practice and giving them early preparation for second grade, when the school schedule shifts and reading classes alternate languages every two weeks.

“Jumpstart plants a seed that allows them to keep growing long into the future,” Torres said.

Jumpstart is a national early education organization, committed to helping all children enter kindergarten prepared. It partners with 70 universities and recruits a small army of volunteers who serve in close to 650 classrooms across 14 states and Washington, DC. Volunteers receive stipends through AmeriCorps and spend about 350 hours with the program per year, between classroom time and training.

Abby Weiss, chief program officer at Jumpstart, said a significant number of children in the program grow a full developmental level or more over one academic year. And based on data from the 2014-2015 program year, 63% of students started the program in the fall with below-average language and literacy skills. By spring, a much smaller 21% fell into that category.

Jumpstart measures progress in oral language, phonological awareness, and book and print knowledge using its own School Success Checklist, and it also assesses students with the TOPEL, a normed test for preschool early literacy that offers a look at how Jumpstart students do compared to their peers around the country. On the TOPEL, 53% of participating Jumpstart preschoolers scored average or above in the fall, while 77% of students did the same by spring.

And bilingual children — like many at the Hernández school — made larger-than-average gains, more than closing gaps in performance during the program year. Even though they started the program testing lower than their monolingual peers, they ended the program year slightly ahead on average.

Besides college student volunteers, a small cadre of older adults work as Jumpstart volunteers in some schools, including the Hernández. Torres said the stable presence of caring adults is important for many of the children in the program, who flourish under the love and attention of grandparent-figures.

Jumpstart only works in schools where at least 75% of the student population qualifies for free- and reduced-price lunch as a measure of poverty. They also focus on urban centers, selecting schools that are accessible from partner universities.

The program doesn’t cost anything for preschools, as Jumpstart services are provided free of charge thanks to federal grants and money from private foundations, individual donors and corporate sponsors.

But the organization’s budget may be in for a major shakeup. AmeriCorps funding makes up 40% of its budget, and that program is slated for elimination in President Donald Trump’s “skinny budget.” Trump also said he would cut funding from work study, which supplies another funding source for JumpStart’s college volunteers.

“Without it, we wouldn’t be able to do our program,” Weiss said of the potential loss of federal funds. “If it goes away we’re going to have to cut our numbers by more than half.”  

As the fate of AmeriCorps is debated in Congress and after-school programs wrap up for the school year, Jumpstart staff members and the schools that rely on them are left to cross their fingers and hope the program will continue in the fall.

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Filed Under: K12