USC News

Menu Search

Grant gives preschoolers a jumpstart on education

by Alexis Young and Cristy Lytal
Grant Gives Preschoolers a Jumpstart on Education
Each USC volunteer will have a set of 20 storybooks to use during Jumpstart sessions.

Ten thousand dollars can buy a lot of school supplies and storybooks.

The USC Volunteer Center recently received a $10,000 USC Neighborhood Outreach Grant to expand its partnership with Jumpstart, a national early childhood education program working to equip preschool children with social, emotional and intellectual readiness before kindergarten. Along with Friends and Neighbors service days and the Alternative Spring Break programs, Jumpstart is one of the Volunteer Center’s three major program initiatives.

“The average student at USC volunteers approximately 2.5 hours a week,” said Melissa Gaeke, director of the center. “It’s a great benefit that there’s this culture of service because it makes it easier to recruit people for programs like Jumpstart. Students come to USC knowing that we have these opportunities for service.”

With the increased funding from the grant, USC is sending 40 Jumpstart core members — a 33 percent increase over last year — to eight preschool sites, where they work with children from 3 to 5 years old. Core members make a one-year commitment to visit classrooms twice a week and complete 300 hours, for which some receive a $1,000 education award from AmeriCorps.

For USC students who want to get involved but need more flexibility in their schedules, the Jumpstart Readers Club — which currently consists of 30 volunteers and will expand to 50 in the spring — allows for a once-per-week commitment.

The grant is also providing curriculum materials.

“The additional resources help us reach more children and families,” said Punam Bhakta, the Jumpstart program manager. “Our new curriculum will have 20 storybooks, and our 40 student volunteers in the core program will have their own sets of books to use during Jumpstart sessions.”

Jumpstart’s national curriculum development team selected the 20 titles, which include Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells, Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats, Oonga Boonga by Frieda Wishinsky and Dog’s Colorful Day: A Messy Story About Colors and Counting by Emma Dodd. Each storybook provides a theme for a week of classroom activities such as songs, poems, games, puzzles, writing, drama or art.

“The purpose is to bring the books alive and deepen the children’s knowledge about the vocabulary, concepts and ideas that are highlighted throughout the books,” Bhakta said. “For example, we’ll read a book called The Little Red Hen about a hen wanting to make a pizza. One of the activities the kids will do in the writing area is making a grocery list of what they need to make a pizza. Then they actually make a pizza out of construction paper.”

Jumpstart volunteer Alena Nordholm has firsthand experience with the power of storybooks to engage preschoolers.

“Last year, we worked individually with one student during our sessions,” said Nordholm, a junior with a double major in international relations and psychology. “My student Michael is such a cutie, but he’s very quiet. One day, we were reading a book about dragons, and all of a sudden his interest was piqued. He started asking all these questions, and the words sprung from him like nothing I have ever heard from him before. So it was just an amazing experience.”

Jumpstart volunteer Julia Sabala, a sophomore with a major in psychology and a minor in social work, also enjoyed watching her partner child blossom.

“She mainly spoke in Spanish, but every once in a while when we’d be reading, she would answer a question that I’d ask her in English,” Sabala said. “She really understood what we were reading so it was good to see the transition.”

In addition to relying on its cadre of dedicated USC volunteers, Jumpstart is expanding its family involvement component through “family literacy days,” consisting of workshops about at-home, everyday language and literacy activities such as encouraging children to read cereal boxes or street signs.

Bhakta also plans to distribute Backpack Buddies, bags filled with books and supplies that children can take home for one week before passing them along to other children.

“We realize that the children’s first teachers are their parents,” Bhakta said. “We provide the families with a library so they can take home books and read to their kids at home.”

Applications for the 2010-11 academic year are still available at For more information, contact Punam Bhakta at (213) 740-8943.

More stories about:

Grant gives preschoolers a jumpstart on education

Top stories on USC News