Mississippi Jumpstart Program Turns 10

Volunteers increase children's likelihood of kindergarten success

Mississippi Jumpstart volunteer I’Tasia Goston reads to a group of pre-K students at Little Saints Academy in Jackson. Since the program’s 2012 launch, volunteers have dedicated more than 172,500 hours to getting Mississippi children ready for kindergarten. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – Mississippi Jumpstart, a program created at the University of Mississippi to help reduce the kindergarten readiness gap in Mississippi, turns 10 this year, having grown from two classrooms in Oxford to four universities serving 15 classrooms across the state.

Since the program’s 2012 launch, 575 volunteer members have served more than 1,900 children. Over the decade, volunteers have dedicated more than 172,500 hours to the program.

Their efforts are critical in Mississippi, where only about one-third of children demonstrated kindergarten readiness in 2021.

Early literacy skills, sometimes called pre-reading skills, can give children the “jump-start” they need to succeed, including skills such as letter recognition, phonological awareness, vocabulary and print motivation, or becoming interested in books.

“At the beginning of the year, some children are only able to recognize a few letters in their name,” said Caitlyn Yochum, site supervisor and an Ole Miss alumna. “By the end of the year, many of our students are able to identify letters and recognize the sounds they make.”

Besides a focus on phonics, volunteers use storybooks, conversation and dramatic play to introduce and reinforce new vocabulary words.

“Throughout the year we see their vocabulary strengthen as well as their confidence and ability to speak about and resolve difficult emotions,” Yochum said.

The university’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction created the program by assembling volunteers to provide children in underserved communities the oral language development, literacy and social-emotional skills they need to succeed in kindergarten.

Kindergarten readiness has been shown to predict long-term achievement and well-being. Children who receive quality early education are more likely to stay in school longer, graduate from high school and attend college.

Together, UM, Mississippi University for Women, the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State University at Meridian and Tougaloo College enroll about 95 members per year who serve more than 240 Mississippi children.

UM provides van transportation for volunteers to serve communities up to one hour outside Oxford, where there are fewer opportunities for university outreach, including Quitman County and the towns of Pontotoc and Okolona.

Long-term, the goal is to have a Jumpstart presence at every public institution of higher learning in the state, said program director Ann Morgan Graham.

“With the rising growth of Tougaloo Jumpstart in Jackson and our recent partnership with Hinds County Head Start, we hope to expand even more in the Jackson area and partner with Jackson State University,” Graham said. “We also hope to partner with Delta State University in the future.”

The program is funded by an AmeriCorps grant through Volunteer Mississippi. All Mississippi Jumpstart volunteers are corps members, both undergraduate and graduate, who commit to serving 300 hours or more in a pre-kindergarten classroom.

Yochum herself is a testament to the impact Mississippi Jumpstart can have on volunteers. She began volunteering with the program as a junior to elevate her resume. After graduating with her first degree in 2018, she returned to Ole Miss to pursue a second degree in elementary education.

“Jumpstart had a tremendous impact on my decision to pursue an education degree,” Yochum said. “I saw the impact service can have in the community. I learned the importance of supporting and advocating for early childhood education.”

Yochum said the best part of the job is seeing those meaningful relationships unfold between students and volunteers.

“Corps members help students build confidence every time they are in the classroom,” she said.

To learn how to get involved with Mississippi Jumpstart, click here.