Volunteering up on campus

by Beacon Staff • April 25, 2007

Jumpstart, founded in 1993 at Yale University, helps preschool children aged three to five years across the nation prepare for success in later grades with help from volunteer college students.,Both volunteerism rates among Boston college students and the quality of the city's public preschool programs are on the decline, two recent studies indicate, but one recently recognized initiative is bucking both trends.

Jumpstart, founded in 1993 at Yale University, helps preschool children aged three to five years across the nation prepare for success in later grades with help from volunteer college students. It's Roxbury program was awarded a $10,000 prize by the Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Foundation on April 9 for its effort to reach every preschool child in the low-income neighborhood.

According to a Wellesley Center for Women study commissioned by the Boston public school system, 70 percent of public preschools lack proper instruction and facilities, a Boston Globe report said. Less than a week later a second study by the Corporation for National and Community Service indicated that although Boston is home to an extraordinary number of prestigious universities, volunteerism rates are down among college-aged students compared to similar figures from around the country.

With approximately 160,000 college students in Boston, only 23.9 percent, or roughly 38,000 Massachusetts college students, volunteer. The Bay State lags 8.3 percent behind the national average of 32.2 percent, a difference of over 13,000 student volunteers.

Senior site manager for Jumpstart's Suffolk University and Emerson program Katy Sawyer said recruitment efforts are strong.

"This year we were working to recruit 40 students," Sawyer said. "When I first started, Jumpstart approached preschools, but we're now at a point where universities want the program and preschools want the program too."

This year, 20 Emerson students and 40 Suffolk students participated in the program, which pairs each college volunteer with one child aged three to five years.

Students go out to four preschools; two in East Boston, one in Roxbury and one public facility in Dorchester.

The goal, Sawyer said, is to identify children who lag in key areas like reasoning and social skills and bolster their education with the supplemental tutoring.

"Jumpstart uses a very sophisticated statistical model," she said. "We assess the child empirically in 20 different areas. Those selected for the Jumpstart program are those falling behind their peers."

Most of the work, she said, is done by the college students.

Freshman marketing communication major Harrison Petit, who works at the Smile Roxbury preschool twice a week with two children, said the work is difficult but rewarding.

"We work with the kids who are behind in basic developmental skills," Petit said. "The parents typically aren't too communicative. They're usually working two jobs, so they rush in, pick up their kids, and go to their second job. It's day to day."

Jumpstart fulfills Petit's work-study requirement, but said he is also aiming for 300 hours of service, which would make him eligible for a $1,000 grant offered by Americorps through the Massachusetts Service Alliance.

Americorps is Jumpstart's largest funding provider, Sawyer said.

Sophomore marketing communication major James DiFabatino, who transferred to Emerson from Suffolk last year, said the chance to work with children was more important than grant opportunities or resume-building.

"The social skills all kind of fall into place," DiFabatino said. "A lot of the program has to do with kids solving their own problems. The most rewarding part is seeing the progress they make."

Jennifer Greer, associate director of the office of service learning and community action, said although Jumpstart offers a great opportunity to volunteer consistently throughout the year, there are other ways for students to give time without a huge commitment.

Greer said Emerson Action Day, held on April 14, saw about 70 students volunteer around the city in seven different programs from the Esplanade to Mission Grammar School in Roxbury Crossing. Greer also said students logged approximately 26,400 hours of community service this year.

Marc Mahan, associate site manager for Emerson and Suffolk, who works under Sawyer, said recruiting efforts will continue next year, and the program hopes to expand further.

"I believe that volunteering is important to any college experience. When I got into Jumpstart, it was just an opportunity to work with kids," Mahan said. "I just know that getting outside of what a normal college student does really opens up new experiences for them."