The University of Arkansas - Fort Smith School of Education is pioneering a state-wide program that will expand student opportunities for community service, scholarship, and hands-on learning and impact the state’s youngest learners through language and social-emotional skill-building.

Thanks in part to a $103,414 grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)’s AmeriCorps program, UAFS will be able to support nearly 40 students of any major as they volunteer with the AmeriCorps Jumpstart program. Jumpstart Arkansas members will deliver innovative early learning instruction to local preschool learners with a focus on language, literacy, and social-emotional skills. In return, the program offers professional development, monetary incentives, and scholarships for those who volunteer.

“The School of Education at UAFS is committed to meeting the needs of the community we serve,” explained Executive Director Dr. Monica Riley. “This program serves the River Valley’s increased need for volunteers and meets the needs of its youngest learners. Providing support in pre-school classrooms impacts future learning of the children we reach.”

UAFS is the first university in Arkansas to offer Jumpstart, a national program that has trained more than 50,000 college students and community volunteers to transform the lives of over 123,000 preschool children since 1993.

Called Jumpstart Arkansas, the university’s program will serve children aged 3 to 5 years old who are enrolled at Arkansas Better Chance preschools. These preschools provide early education and interventions for at-risk populations of students who are low income (defined as below 200% of the federal poverty line) and are in critical need of support from trained educators and volunteers.

University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley stated in their ground-breaking 2003 research that children in poverty experience 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 than their wealthier counterparts. Children who enter kindergarten without strong language skills and who do not receive interventions early and often to improve lagging language development skills are negatively impacted throughout school.

Riley explained that 65 percent of third-graders in Fort Smith Public Schools did not reach grade-level proficiency on the 2018 ACT Aspire English Language Arts assessment, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. “So this effort meets a need that we know is shared across the country, but that hits especially hard in the River Valley. Early interventions through the Jumpstart Arkansas program will increase the potential for success of children throughout their educational journeys.”

“Having trained AmeriCorps members in the preschools in the region will provide a better opportunity for children from low-income homes to be ready for kindergarten, and this program will support classroom teachers by providing research-based literacy interventions and providing opportunities for the children involved to experience early reading success,” added Kimberly Taylor, Jumpstart Arkansas coordinator. Taylor, a former director of an Arkansas Better Chance preschool herself, stated she had seen firsthand how monumental the impact of quality early education can be for young students.

In addition to the service to their community, students who volunteer with the program will receive a monthly living allowance of $100 per month for up to six months, and those who complete 300 hours of service within a year may be eligible for a Segal Educational Award of up to $1,200.

Members of the public may join the UAFS team, receiving the same monthly living allowances and earning the same educational awards for future use toward a certificate, bachelor’s or master’s degree program, as long as they are 18 years old and have earned a high school diploma. Volunteers who are over the age of 55 also have the option to pass their educational award on to a child, step-child, grandchild, step-grandchild, or foster child.

As they enter the program, all AmeriCorps Members will receive at least 40 hours of training, ongoing support and coaching, as well as time each week planning and preparing for work in the classrooms. Teams of five to seven AmeriCorps members will be assigned to each classroom, where they will support teacher-led activities and provide individualized support to children. Through the Jumpstart program, UAFS will be able to alleviate the adult-to-child ratio in each classroom from 1:20 to 1:3, allowing children to experience individualized learning opportunities from caring adults.

Candidates do not have to be education majors to participate, added Taylor. “They simply need the heart to serve the children of the community. We currently have members seeking degrees in business, nursing, education, writing and rhetoric, music, social work, and criminal justice.”

“Students of all majors will be able to supplement their education with training, professional development, and hands-on experience,” she explained. “Through their Jumpstart service, many members’ interest in becoming early childhood educators increases along with the number of highly informed advocates of early education, bringing young children higher quality early learning experiences and more school success.”

The Jumpstart Arkansas program at UAFS will also provide supplemental literacy-focused classroom materials and resources to each classroom the program serves and will engage in the Jumpstart Read for the Record Campaign and other literacy activities as needed. Read for the Record is generally in the fall and enlists readers from all walks of life to read to children. In 2018 1.7 million readers participated across 49 states.

Students and community members may request more information and apply to participate in the Jumpstart program at https://education.uafs.edu/jumpstart. Volunteers will begin serving as teams the week of January 13.

For more information those interested may contact Taylor at Kimberly.Taylor@uafs.edu.