Interview: James Cleveland of Jumpstart on preschoolers, connections and literacy
Five-year-olds from low-income communities have one-quarter the vocabulary of their more affluent peers, and half of them enter first grade as much as two years behind in preschool skills. That’s a severe handicap, which will persist for life unless something powerful intervenes. That’s why Jumpstart, a Boston-based tutoring and mentoring organization, fosters ongoing relationships between preschoolers and caring adult volunteers. Founded in 1993 with 15 college students working with 15 preschoolers, Jumpstart has grown into a national platform that engages 3,500 college students and retired citizens who assist more than 13,000 children in 20 states.
Here, Jumpstart’s President James Cleveland talks about how his organization works to create a “multiplier effect” by influencing not just individual kids’ lives, but whole communities.
Dowser: Jumpstart is a fast growing organization. You’ve nearly tripled the number of students served each year since 2002. But there are so many children who could benefit from this work—is it possible to reach all of them?
Cleveland: I don’t believe we’ll be able to get to every single child in America who needs something like Jumpstart, though the aspiration is important. As a preschool agency serving children in poverty, we are targeting approximately a million kids. But in Roxbury, Boston, for example, thanks to our program there’s a whole community of children with stronger skills than they had two years ago – and that’s getting the attention of the public school system, business leaders, and foundations. Over time, we can have influence in other ways, like being invited to a conversation on a policy level that could affect the entire city. Four hundred kids could affect 4,000 kids.
How is Jumpstart unique in helping the existing education system?
In a kindergarten class, about one-third of the students entering won’t be ready for school. The teacher may not be able to give the attention that kids require, and suddenly those kids are falling even further behind.
During the years before kindergarten, a child’s brain is most open to learning language and literacy skills through one-on-one interactions with an adult. We aim to take advantage of this unique time in children’s development by providing caring, trained adults to provide that attention, so that chances are higher they will be successful for the rest of their academic career.
Can you give me some examples of how your Corps volunteer members’ understanding of child psychology comes into play during their mentorships?
At three years old a child’s brain has double the active neural connections of an adult’s brain, so it’s very elastic. It’s constantly making, destroying and remaking connections, and this brain activity has a lot to do with the child’s experiences.
We teach our volunteers the child development stages. This framework helps them understand why we’re using a particular curriculum or set of activities at each stage.
How do Corps members treat a child differently than would a preschool teacher who hasn’t been through the Jumpstart training?
Our Corps members understand that many of these children are still in this ‘me, me, me’ phase. When a child has a conflict with another child, rather than using punitive approaches, a Jumpstart Corps member will remove the object in question, and then speak with both children to understand why they feel the way they do. They encourage the children to come to an agreement and solve the problem themselves.
What has been an unexpected success at Jumpstart?
About six years ago, we decided to engage several retired citizens to become Corps members. They have knowledge that college students don’t: they’ve raised their own kids; they’re raising grandkids. It takes a few weeks for a college student to develop a relationship with the child—they don’t always look like the children that they’re serving, they don’t have the experience, and initially there’s a confidence issue. I’ve walked into a class on the second day and the children have already developed emotional connections with these older folks, which is really startling to me.
How about a success story?
There was a little boy named Anthony who was not talking and lashed out whenever he was exposed to books. Through Jumpstart, a college student named Ashley became his partner. Anthony started talking and enjoyed reading. Two years later, he realized that he had grown to love books and that he was doing better than most of his classmates because of Ashley, and wanted to thank her. He called her and said, ‘I’m going to write a book about you and me and this is going to be my way to thank you.’
I read that you helped open four new SCORE! centers and cofounded Inside Track, a support and guidance organization for college students, before joining Jumpstart. What made you want to join Jumpstart?
When I first came to Boston to learn more about Jumpstart I observed a class in the South End. They were doing circle time. A little boy walked up to me and said, ‘Are you with Jumpstart?’ I said I was, and he hugged my leg, grabbed my hand, and pulled me into the circle. I realized how starved these kids are for that one-on-one attention and how safe they feel because of Jumpstart.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Julie Furbush for Dowser