Jumpstart Works to Close Education Gap


Jumpstart brings Fordham students to under-resourced preschool classrooms, where volunteers help teach children to read (Joergen Ostensen/The Fordham Ram).

By Joergen Ostensen

Kristina*, a preschool student at Community School 92 in the Bronx, practiced her letters by looking at pictures from the movie Frozen. She saw the letter J on a card next to the word “jump” and began jumping up and down with a big smile on her face.

“J is for jump!” she said. “Jump, jump, jump.”

Kristina is a part of a classroom that receives volunteers twice a week from Fordham’s Jumpstart site, a nationwide program that helps assist under-resourced schools to teach preschoolers how to read.

Emily Paddon, FCRH’19, the team leader of this classroom’s Jumpstart team, said that schools like this are in serious need of help, as educational opportunities are limited for people in lower socioeconomic positions.

“There’s a huge gap in readiness for kindergarten that exists between communities that have resources and [those that] don’t,” she said.

On Tuesday, the students in class were reading a book called “Dear Juno” by Soyung Pak, which is about a grandmother writing letters to her grandson.

The letters in the story set the tone for the rest of the day. Later, the students were each given a card with a letter on it from the word “MAIL” and crowded around Paddon. She held in her hand a poster with paper flaps covering each of the letters.

“If you have the letter M, hold it up,” Paddon said as she opened the first flap.

As she opened each flap, the students whose letters corresponded screamed with excitement, waving their letters in the air.

Paddon said the goal of activities like this is to integrate books they read into fun activities that make the kids excited about learning.

Later, the students broke into group activities like playing with Legos and making necklaces out of beads and string. While that was going on, some of the preschoolers delivered letters from Paddon to the students. The deliverers of the letters wore mailman hats that the Jumpstart volunteers had brought with them.

“It makes me so happy when you are a good listener in circle time,” one of the letters said.

Paddon said she loves volunteering with Jumpstart and is pursuing a career as teacher in a school like CS 92. She said one of her favorite parts about the work is watching the improvement of a student she reads with one on one, who has particular trouble focusing.

“I figured out ways to engage him in the story,” she said. “The most rewarding thing is when he is engaged and does well. You can see that he is actually having fun learning.”

Caitlin Calio, FCRH ’18, of Jumpstart corps member, said her favorite thing about Jumpstart is the development of a relationship with a particularly shy student.

Calio said that in the beginning, this student was reluctant to engage with the class, despite knowing all the letters of the alphabet. Now that has changed.

“Now she actually does seem to be engaged and she does seem to have a good time. She’ll even ask me about my own life,” she said.

Jumpstart provides the opportunity for the whole class to get one-on-one exposure in the classroom. Tamara Vega, who has been the teacher in this classroom for the last two years, said that would not be possible without them. There are currently 16 four- and five-year-olds in the class.

“Jumpstart is very effective. I see kids get excited. They build relationships with the young adults that come in,” Vega said.

Vega said that the school’s neighborhood is one of the poorest in the Bronx and in the state. She said her students face many obstacles.

“We have kids that are in shelters currently, kids that are in the foster system, so many different external things,” she said.

According to Vega, school is one of the few constants in the lives of these children.

“This is where they feel safe. This is the only place where they can build those relationships [with adults],” she said. “Their lives change, and they’re only four years old and it changes faster than many of our lives change.”

Teigen Voetberg, the site manager of Jumpstart Bronx at Fordham University, said it is specifically important to help kids before they reach kindergarten age.

“When you seek to close the gap earlier on in Pre-K, then it is much more likely that child is going to go to succeed,” she said.

Calio said that the work is challenging but that makes the experience more meaningful.

“It also makes it so much more rewarding because these kids really need this extra help learning their letters and getting ready for kindergarten,” she said.

Calio said only doing Jumpstart for one year is her biggest regret of her time at Fordham.

Vega said Jumpstart is a constant presence for the students to look forward to every week despite the volatile situations some may experience outside of school.

“It’s something that has been there from the beginning of the school year,” she said. “They have had something to hold onto, whereas their life outside is not like that.”

One of the teachers told Voetberg that students were upset when the Jumpstart volunteers were away for spring break.

“When the students were on spring break, the teacher told me the kids would not stop asking: ‘Where’s our Jumpstart?’” Voetberg said.

When Jumpstart volunteers are in the classroom, they try to help the preschoolers learn to write letters. One student, Michael, knew how to write all the letters in his own name but struggled with others.

Michael* could not write the letter “Y” despite his efforts. One of the volunteers helped him by drawing dotted line in the shape of a Y for him to trace. Michael filled a whole sheet of paper with “Ys” and scribbles.

Michael was allowed to play with Silly Putty to help him calm down while he worked on his “Ys.” When he was done practicing his letters, he rolled the Silly Putty into a ball and began to play catch with the volunteers.

Michael was very enthusiastic about the game, although he had trouble catching some throws at first. When the ball hit the ground, it would bounce chaotically and roll around the room. Michael dove like he was recovering a fumble to retrieve the ball.

As time went on, Michael got better at catching the ball and began to orchestrate his own game. He would tell whose turn it was to receive the ball and later called over his friend Manuel to join in.

Paddon said that her goal this year is to get the students to develop better social skills, as over the course of the year she has noticed a decrease in the number of tantrums.

Paddon said she has a special connection to this school and wanted to work there after her graduation. Unfortunately, she said the school will be shutting down at the end of this school year because it was deemed to have lacked necessary improvements.

The students will most likely find their way into other public schools according to Paddon, which she said is an issue.

“That just overcrowds nearby schools,” she said.

Paddon said she has learned a lot about the Bronx through her two and a half years with Jumpstart. She encouraged other Fordham students to make an effort to engage with a program like this which serves the surrounding community.

“I think Fordham can’t exist in a bubble,” she said.

Paddon told her students there will be five more sessions, which was met with loud applause. When it was time for the Jumpstart volunteers to leave CS 92, the students gave them all hugs.

*Names were changed to protect the identities of young children in the Jumpstart Program.