Holding a classroom of 3- and 4-year-olds’ attention isn’t easy under normal circumstances, so Woodlawn preschool teacher Yvette Jones has had to really get creative to keep her students engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every few weeks, for instance, Jones drops discovery bags off at her students’ homes — Ziplock bags packed with supplies like plastic water bottles, hair beads, and stickers for a remote lesson on making musical instruments or different lengths of string for a remote lesson on measurements. She also continues to rely on support from the University of Chicago students she’s partnered with for nearly a decade through UChicago’s Jumpstart program.
Jones, who teaches at Emmett Till Academy, says her young students still get excited whenever Jumpstart participants from the University log in to her virtual classroom to lead their twice-weekly literature and phonics sessions. Whether the preschoolers are watching the Jumpstart students read a story to the class over Zoom or diving into the corresponding discovery bags Jones provides, Jones says having a few more grown-ups around to help keep the children interested in the midst of a challenging year makes her life easier.
“Once they get used to the UChicago students coming in and talking, especially when they’re talking about the stories and what not, they have a connection with them,” Jones says.
Jones has been partnering with UChicago’s Jumpstart initiative, a partner of the national nonprofit of the same name, since it was first incorporated into the University’s Neighborhood Schools Program (NSP) in 2012 and was even named NSP’s Teacher of the Year in 2018. The small group attention Jumpstart provides has been helpful for Jones and her students over the years, she says. Instead of having one teacher and an assistant to nearly 20 students, the Jumpstart student employees make that ratio much more manageable and give Jones time to observe and report on student progress.
“Some of the kids need that one-on-one support or that smaller group and they get that, so it does help,” Jones says. “Jumpstart helps the children to become a little bit more outspoken. They get more face-to-face time. It helps them with their self-confidence. It also helps the young students that need that extra push academically or socially and emotionally.”
Interacting with University students also exposes her preschoolers to adults from different backgrounds and cultures, Jones says, and to the idea that education is a life-long journey:
“It lets them know that you’re just not in school when you’re little.”
Though numbers were slightly down this year because of the pandemic, in a typical year, about 45 UChicago students participate in the University’s Jumpstart initiative. Jumpstart partners with multiple classrooms in three schools in Woodlawn, serving approximately 120 pre-kindergarten students.
With a recent grant from UChicago’s Women’s Board, the initiative is set to soon serve even more local preschool children and support teachers like Jones. A new approach aims to create opportunities for an intergenerational group of community residents — including parents, grandparents from partner schools, and older adults from Woodlawn and neighboring South Side communities — to participate in Jumpstart training alongside University students. By expanding the Jumpstart instructional teams, the initiative will build on its years of meeting local young students’ educational needs while expanding opportunities for community participation and interaction for all ages.