Thirteen million words. That’s the cumulative number of utterances a four-year-old living in poverty has heard in his or her life. Sounds like a lot, right? I mean, we’re talking about preschoolers here. But a typical four-year-old growing up in a middle-class family has been exposed to closer to forty-five million. You do the math.
As a student going into the field of education, I literally can’t go more than a day without hearing the term “achievement gap” in reference to the troubling state of affairs in our nation’s schools. Children from low-income situations are falling further and further behind their more affluent peers—not through any inherent fault of their own, but through the unfair reality that, from the start, they have been presented with more challenges and provided with less enrichment than middle- and upper-class children. The disadvantage starts early and it only gets worse. Forty-five million words is more than three times thirteen million. And that’s before students even enter kindergarten.
That’s where Jumpstart comes in. That’s where, as a member of a service corps working to provide supplemental preschool literacy instruction here in Boston and around the nation, I get to see—for my own kids, at least—the gap closing a tiny bit more every day. It’s closing when Aiden*, the most challenging of my three partner children, points at pictures in a storybook and verbally identifies them, or when he sings, in his adorably froggy little boy voice, the beginning of the ABCs. Not monumental accomplishments for most people, but a big deal for a child who, in the beginning of the year, never spoke and spent reading time making repeated attempts to run away and terrorize the classroom. The gap is closing when another of my partner children, a little girl named Josie, runs up to me the morning after I sent a letter home to her family and, eyes shining, exclaims “You said I’m bright!” I want to instill that confidence in her, and I want it to stay with her for the rest of her life. The gap is closing when another child in the class, Mariana, raises her hand during our last afternoon session in December and tells us that in the dramatic play center, she gave her baby doll a bath because it was “filthy,” a vocabulary word from the first book we read in September.
Unlike some people, I don’t have a story of a dramatic transformation. I didn’t change my major or my life philosophy because of Jumpstart, and I certainly can’t claim to be working any kind of miracles with my kids. But I am working—slowly and steadily, alongside a lot of other dedicated people—towards gradual progress. Over the course of this year, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of quality early childhood education for the children who need it most, and every day, my children are being given an extra chance to gain academic and social ground before having to enter a kindergarten class full of better-prepared peers.
Jumpstart’s mission statement is “Working towards the day every child in America enters kindergarten prepared to succeed.” Every child in America. It sounds absolutely overwhelming until I slow myself down and focus on the fact that there are three children in the South End who know more than they did yesterday. My Jumpstart story isn’t impressive or unique, but it is real, and I am proud to be devoting my time to real progress for real children, real human beings who are coexisting alongside me in this city. Sometimes, I can’t look at the achievement gap as a statistic. It’s too big, so much bigger than me. But I can look at the individual gaps being bridged by individual kids, and I can do something to make that happen.
*Student names changed to maintain confidentiality.