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Getting a 'Jumpstart' on literacy

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Classmates Morgan Conner and Britany Villegas Ortiz raise their hands to volunteer to share with the class what they did during the Jumpstart Session. (Josh Freund/Medill)

Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon around 3 p.m., a group of Northwestern University students in red Jumpstart T-shirts trickle into the Howard Area Community Center.


Once inside, the Jumpstart members follow a carefully crafted pre-school literacy curriculum to engage toddlers in poems, songs, reading and word games.  


Kerry Brown, a Northwestern sophomore, is one of thousands of college students the non-profit organization places in preschool classrooms across the nation to help educators tackle the learning achievement gap in low-income neighborhoods.  

“When you look at the disparities between education for middle class kids and low-income kids, it’s just a shocking gap,” Brown said. “It’s so sad to know that these kids (are) already behind when they get to kindergarten.”


According to a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only about half of children from low-income families can write their own name by kindergarten. That number jumps to 75 percent and above in higher income brackets.


Tony Raden of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based non-profit that advocates for early childhood education programs, says waiting to tackle these literacy issues in kindergarten is too late.  

Miguel Gonzalez experiments with a flashlight at Jumpstart. (Josh Freund/Medill)

“We know in Chicago and across the nation that there’s a very significant difference in skills at a very young age, and it is very evident and very significant by kindergarten,” Raden said. “(The gap) starts in the developmental period and grows and widens over time.”

Barbara Bowman, a leading early childhood education expert and advocate, said in an email interview that programs like Jumpstart can help, especially by providing stimulating one-on-one instruction. But she says closing the achievement gap requires a greater nationwide effort.  

“Unfortunately, many children need expert teaching which untrained people cannot provide,” Bowman said. “It would clearly make more sense to fund the schools so there were enough qualified teachers.”

Brown says it’s a start. And it’s worth her effort.

“College students can make a difference,” she said. “At the end of the year, you see that they are making improvements, that they’re spelling their names, they’re writing out different letters, and the parents definitely seem to respond well. I think they’re seeing an improvement too.”

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