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Jumpstart “Ignite Passion for Learning”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Befitting St. John’s University’s Vincentian tradition of service, The School of Education’s 10-year partnership with the Jumpstart nationwide literacy organization aims to close the achievement gap for today’s low-income youth.

The nucleus of the program consists of the Jumpstart Corps volunteers, guided by Charisse Willis ’89SVC, ’91GEd, ’05PD, Associate Dean and Jumpstart “Campus Champion,” and Dean Jerrold Ross, Ph.D., Vice President of the Staten Island campus. More than 500 St. John’s alumni and 77 undergraduates have served as mentors to and active catalysts of change for underprivileged preschool children. 

After being interviewed by Jumpstart’s site managers, Corps members commit to at least 300 hours per academic year, averaging 12 hours a week in the elementary school classrooms “Their responsibilities are significant and demand the utmost dedication,” said Miriam Gadlin, who serves as one of two St. John’s site managers with Julie Brunner. “Student volunteers balance their own academic schedules with the demands of communicating with family members and guardians, engaging children individually and in groups, reviewing session plans and addressing unexpected hardships.”

All Jumpstart classrooms serve children who live below the poverty level, many of them homeless. The socioeconomic challenges faced daily by this community of three- to five-year-old children and their families often lead to a lifetime of struggle and desperation. Jumpstart strives to combat the statistics suggesting that low-income children are 60 percent more likely to start kindergarten unable to read.

Corps members are as diverse as the children they serve. Although their skills and academic focuses differ — with varying majors including Early Childhood Education, Communications, Criminal Justice and Business — they are united by a desire to ignite in Jumpstart clients a passion to learn and an expectation of success.  

Personally identifying with their young charges, many volunteers dedicate more time than expected. For example, Bridget Grayson ’13CPS spent more than 600 hours at her Jamaica, Queens-based school while juggling a full academic schedule as a Mass Communications major.

Grayson did not view those additional hours as a sacrifice. “So many of these children lack a stable home life,” she said. “I could never give up on them. The weekly presence of Jumpstart Corps members is something they can rely on.”

Rashida Wisdom ’14Ed, a three-year Corps member, was also profoundly influenced by her Jumpstart experience. “Seeing the positive change in the children, watching them smile, gave me a wider perspective on the ways education impacts lives,” she said. “Jumpstart opened my mind to all the benefits of creative teaching techniques.” After eight months, Rashida embraced her passion for Childhood Education and changed her major from Legal Studies.
Language barriers in low-income communities also present challenges. Bilingual Corps members are placed in targeted schools to help children overcome insecurity and develop a genuine love for learning. Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking St. John’s Corps members are assisting a Flushing, NY, preschool where those languages predominate. Similarly, a Jamaica, Queens, classroom is benefiting from another Corps member’s fluency in Creole.

The teacher-to-student ratio in low-income classrooms is typically one-to-12, vastly different from the one-to-three ratio of more affluent communities. In neighborhoods where so many students — and teachers — face challenges, Corps members value the opportunity to help equalize this disparity.