Service-learning program gives children a ‘jump start’ into school

Sept. 14, 2006

by Danielle Russell

The School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has launched a new outreach and service-learning program aimed at helping economically disadvantaged preschoolers get a "jump start" on kindergarten, while giving college students experience in the classroom.

The Jumpstart program aligns college students with children, ages 3-5 years old, for a one-to-one learning experience through reading and in-depth discussion. The program also helps children to develop language and social skills by participating in small group activities.

"One-to-one attention builds literacy," says Maria Bundy, site manager for Jumpstart at UW-Madison. As a former preschool teacher with a master's degree in early education, family and literacy, Bundy understands the value of early childhood education.

"Early education needs to be a priority in our country," Bundy says. "Jumpstart is a really good step in the right direction."

According to the Jumpstart Web site, 35 percent of American kindergarten children arrive at school unprepared to learn. In addition, 5-year-olds from low-income communities have one-fourth the vocabulary of their middle-income peers.

Bundy explains that there's a definite need for a program such as Jumpstart in Madison. "There are many families living with very low income, and parents and teachers are not always able to provide the one-to-one attention that children greatly benefit from," she says.

However, college student volunteers can provide such attention using the Jumpstart program model. Based on research and practice in early childhood education, Jumpstart is designed to build literacy along with emotional and social readiness.

"Jumpstart really bases its program on some of the best practices in the field of early childhood education," says Julie Poehlmann, professor in the School of Human Ecology and faculty adviser to the UW-Madison program.

Poehlmann initiated the effort to bring Jumpstart to Madison. After multiple students asked her why UW-Madison didn't have a Jumpstart program, Poehlmann talked with Head Start and other UW-Madison faculty and students and found that there was a lot of enthusiasm for the program on campus and in the community.

Jumpstart is an Americorps program that began in 1993 at Yale University with 15 college student volunteers and 15 preschoolers. Since then, it's grown to include more than 3,100 college students and has connected with more than 12,000 preschoolers in 19 states. In Wisconsin, Jumpstart is supported by "Serve Wisconsin," a governor-appointed board that promotes community service.

Bundy says that this year, Jumpstart will partner with the South Madison Head Start as well as other centers in Madison.

Although the program hasn't entered the classroom yet in Madison, the response from potential volunteers has been positive, according to Poehlmann. She hopes to have 35 college student volunteers this year and noted that work-study positions are available.

"It's a very rewarding experience for our members. They have the opportunity not only to provide this service to their community, but they form a bond with the child and see that child make dramatic improvements over the course of the year," Bundy says.

In addition, the UW-Madison Jumpstart program has formed a partnership with the Morgridge Center. The college student volunteers will be able to participate in service projects in the communities surrounding the two preschools.

"I think that Madison is one of the leaders in service learning and getting students involved in a civic capacity," Poehlmann says, adding that involvement in the community builds on the idea of learning and serving together.

For more information, contact Bundy at (608) 890-1414 or bundy@wisc.edu.