Volunteers celebrate AmeriCorps week

Gideon Bradshaw | March 12, 2012    

When a team from Pitt’s Jumpstart program arrived at Crescent Early Childhood Center, a… When a team from Pitt’s Jumpstart program arrived at Crescent Early Childhood Center, a preschool in Homewood, the class of 20 could barely contain its excitement.

One student became so enthralled at seeing the Pitt students who have worked with him since the fall that he ran into the hallway where the members of Jumpstart were hanging their jackets in a locker and embraced the leg of one of the tutors. Another child grinned from the doorway as he greeted tutors by name.

Jumpstart, a nationwide AmeriCorps program, aims to teach early literacy and comprehension skills to preschoolers in low-income neighborhoods in order to reduce the education gap that affects many poor neighborhoods. During this year’s National AmeriCorps Week, which runs from March 10 to 18, Jumpstart at Pitt will partner with other AmeriCorps organizations to offer services to the community.

Angela Gordon, Pitt’s Jumpstart program coordinator, said that 115 Pitt students currently participate in the University’s Jumpstart program, which tutors a total of 253 preschoolers in 12 classrooms located in Braddock, Swissvale, Mount Washington, Northside, East Liberty and Homewood.

Christa Rossi, who graduated from Pitt last year and now works for Jumpstart at Pitt as a site manager, said that members of Pitt’s Jumpstart participated in a service crawl on Saturday with members of other AmeriCorps organizations across Pittsburgh as part of AmeriCorps week. During the event, the members went from one service project in the city to another based on scavenger-hunt style clues.

Gordon expressed enthusiasm about her organization’s opportunity to celebrate the week with other nonprofits.

“We try to do some sharing with other AmeriCorps organizations,” she said. “So it’s nice that we got invited to the service crawl.”

On Thursday, Corps members and volunteers will meet at the O’Hara Student Center to create felt boards that will enable preschoolers to follow along with the storybook “Llama Llama Red Pajama,” and on Friday members and volunteers from the community will hold a school-wide session at the Crescent Early Childhood Center in Homewood to offer all students at the school a chance to participate in a Jumpstart session.

Though grants from The Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent corporation for AmeriCorps, fund the program at Pitt, Gordon said that the University also contributes to the funding for Pitt’s Jumpstart program, contributing office space in the William Pitt Union as well as funds to lease vans that aid in transporting lesson materials to the sites.

“I am very, very thankful for the support that [the University] gives,” she said.

Pitt students who work for the program participate in planning sessions and attend two classes at the local schools every week during which they each work closely with two or three children.

Each of the 12 teams within Pitt’s Jumpstart program is led by a member who has had at least one year of experience. Gordon said the program also employs three full-time site managers who manage the teams and supervise the implementation of the curriculum.

Gordon said most of the students who participate in the program commit to 300 hours throughout the year, including 60 hours of training before they work with a class. She noted that 25 of Pitt’s Jumpstart students could only commit to 220 hours throughout the year.

Gordon added that team leaders go through additional training, such as the weekend-long September Leadership Institute, at which they practice planning and leading classroom sessions.

Once in the classroom, each tutoring session focuses on a core storybook, which Corps members read aloud to groups of two or three preschoolers.

When junior Nicky Saputo’s team visited the Crescent Early Childhood Center on March 1, they read “Dear Juno,” a picture book by Soyung Pak about a child who corresponds by mail with his grandmother.

Laura Buccigrossi, a junior, sat near a corner with a young boy and girl, 3 and 5 years old, respectively, who huddled closely and looked on intently as she read “Dear Juno” to them. Buccigrossi stopped occasionally to ask them questions and have them repeat information to check their comprehension of the material.

At a table closer to the middle of the room, Sahil Amin finished reading “Dear Juno” to his three students a little early. He picked up a small stack of cards that he had set on the table and removed the metallic ring that held them together.

“This is just a small trick I showed them to pass the time when we finish reading,” Amin said. “They spin the ring [while] I ask them questions about the story,” he said as his students excitedly began passing the ring back and forth.

Jennifer Cooley-Matesic, who teaches the preschool class Saputo’s team works with, explained that, in order to enhance the attention her students receive during their small-group sessions with Jumpstart’s tutors, she gives the tutors guidance about the needs of individual students.

With the consent of her pupils’ parents, she makes recommendations to the tutors about the learning needs of her individual students.

“I noticed that some of my kids were having trouble telling a story with a beginning, middle and end,” Cooley-Matesic said. “So I told [the Jumpstart tutors], and now they focus on that during story time.”

During each session, the core storybook provides a framework for the other learning activities that the tutors prepare for the children. Because letter writing figured so prominently in “Dear Juno,” this session incorporated letter writing and mail as a theme for most of the activities.

Saputo, who is now in her second year as a team leader, has worked for Jumpstart since she was a freshman. She enthusiastically discussed the satisfaction she gets from tutoring and indicated that her work with children in these locations has felt like far more than a job. She believed that her team shared her commitment.

“It’s really helpful to have a group of seven fantastic individuals to make my job easier, because it can get hectic,” Saputo said.

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