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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI students giving preschoolers a ‘jumpstart’ to education

Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 401-874-2116

KINGSTON, R.I. -- January 26, 2004 -- Standing in the middle of the circle, 3-year-old Elena begins to jump, her smile wide, her blonde ponytail bouncing up and down. Quickly, Elena’s eight classmates and seven University of Rhode Island students are on their feet and following Elena’s lead.

How apropos! The Simon-says-type exercise is just one of many components URI students are using to help some 3-to-5-year olds at the South County Community Action Inc. Head Start site in North Kingstown jump start their education.

Indeed, things really jumped at URI’s Feinstein Center for Service Learning this fall when the University was selected as one of 13 institutions (out of 100) to be a new Jumpstart site and awarded a three-year $174,000 grant.

Founded in 1994, Jumpstart is a national early childhood program that pairs college students with preschool children from low-income families struggling in Head Start and other early education classrooms. The program, with its best practices curriculum, is designed to get the preschoolers up to speed so that when they enter first grade they are ready to learn.

That is extraordinarily important for the children’s future success. A 1993 study shows that about half of all poor children begin first grade lagging up to two years behind their peers in preschool skills. That gap not only continues through the school years, but widens with time.

This is where 30 URI students from diverse disciplines and backgrounds are making a difference as part-time Americorps members. Recruited and trained at URI’s Feinstein Center for Service Learning, the Jumpstart URI Corps members which were divided into three teams, will spend a total of 300 hours this academic year with preschoolers at the North Kingstown site, the South County Community Action Inc. Head Start site in Charlestown and at CANE Daycare in Wakefield. During the past fall semester, the Jumpstart URI Corps members worked one-on-one with their partnering child twice a week to develop early language, literacy, and social skills. In addition, working in teams, the Jumpstart URI Corps members spent an additional fours hours a week in the pre-school classroom supporting the teacher and other students while observing their preschool partner. The Jumpstart URI Corps members also spent two to four hours weekly in planning and training sessions at the University.

"The University students are so eager and helpful," says teacher Korinne Erikson, site manager of the North Kingstown site. "When they arrive, the children immediately want to hold their hands. They’re building great relationships."

For their participation, URI students either receive federal work study funds or college credit. In addition, each will receive a $1,000 AmeriCorps scholarship upon successfully completing the year.

The rewards aren’t simply financial. "I love working with kids," says freshman Michonne Gamble-Rivers, an early childhood education major who refused to be sidelined from a session by a fractured ankle. "It has been my dream since fifth grade to open my own daycare," she says, after reading a book with her young ponytailed partner Elena.

Senior Suzana Rosa of Hartford, Conn. also relishes being a Jumpstart URI Corps member and laughs heartily as her partner Coby stretches his grin for a visiting photographer. A long-time baby sitter, Rosa plans to take a year off after graduation to earn money for graduate school. She hopes to become a child psychiatrist.

Beth Wilmarth, a junior from Lincoln, R.I., has years of experience working with children on either a volunteer or paid basis: at camps, preschools and schools. Listening to her pre-school partner Damon talk about his handmade puppet, she praises his creative tale and asks him to tell her more. Wilmarth, who plans to attend law school and eventually become a child advocate, says she has witnessed the benefits of working one-on-one over the course of the semester. "It makes a huge difference in a child’s life," she says.

URI’s Jumpstart site manager, Lynne Finnegan, expects to recruit 40 URI students in February for the 2004 fall semester. Anyone interested should contact her at 874-2090.