Giving Children a Chance

by Randi Levine

Randi Levine is a Jumpstart alumna who now works as an attorney in New York City, focusing on early childhood education advocacy.

“When I grow up, I want to be a yellow truck because yellow is my favorite color,” exclaimed 3-year-old Dante during Jumpstart. Lakisha said she wanted to be a teacher, and Jamal said he wanted to be a doctor to make sick people feel better. “How am I going to get into college?” cried 4-year-old Malachi, knowing that we were college students. “I need to get into college,” he proclaimed.

As we led these preschoolers in discussion and song, hope filled the room. One would never know that every one of these children was living in poverty. One would never know that Dante lived on a street plagued by violence where we were warned not to walk at night or that Lakisha’s mother could not afford to pay her phone bill that month.

Optimism would turn to despair with the realization of the stark achievement gap that exists between children in poverty and their more affluent peers, and the statistics about parental education and income that predict that Malachi is more likely to drop out of high school than earn a college degree.

Yet, I remained hopeful because these children were participating in Head Start and had the additional intensive support provided by Jumpstart.

When I entered college, I knew I wanted to engage in public service. I was a work-study student and was hoping to find a job that was truly meaningful. So I applied to Jumpstart.

Through Jumpstart, I observed the impact that high-quality early childhood education has in preparing children for kindergarten. When I first met Kayla, she said only a couple of words. She did not know any letters and did not know what to do with a book. After two years of Jumpstart, she loved reading time and pretending to talk on the phone, and would look for the first letter of her name, K, everywhere in the classroom, exclaiming “My K! My K!” every time she found one.

Jumpstart also helped me develop into a leader—challenging me to motivate a team of diverse students to provide the best service we could for our children and families—and teaching me how to be professional and silly at the same time!

Inspired by Jumpstart, I began to take child policy classes and learned that research supported what I saw firsthand in the classroom. I learned about the long-term research showing that low-income children who participate in high-quality preschool are less likely to be retained a grade in school, be placed in special education classes, drop out of high school, rely on public assistance, or become involved in the criminal justice system.

However, I also learned that Head Start was serving only half of the eligible preschoolers living in poverty.

After college, I spent several years advocating for federal legislation in DC, including the reauthorization of Head Start. I then applied to law school with an essay that, of course, talked about Jumpstart. My experiences during law school reinforced my commitment to acting as early as possible to get children on the right track.

I later met with Advocates for Children of New York, an education advocacy organization that had focused traditionally on K-12 education. We were concerned that there was no attorney in New York City focused on early childhood education, and we decided it was time to fill that gap. For the past five-and-a-half years, the Early Childhood Education Project at Advocates for Children has provided legal representation, outreach and training, and policy advocacy to strengthen access to high-quality early childhood education programs for low-income families.

It is heartbreaking to hear from families who cannot find preschool seats for their children. A grandparent explained to us that her older grandchild is involved in the juvenile justice system and she wanted desperately for her three-year-old grandchild to go to preschool to get him on a different life path, but all the programs she contacted had waitlists.

That’s why the Project advocates for increased investments in high-quality early childhood education programs, and we won’t stop until every child has the right to a preschool seat.

Today, the children I taught during my first year in Jumpstart should be preparing to graduate from high school. I do not know if they are still thinking about becoming college students and doctors and teachers and…yellow trucks. But I know that Jumpstart helped give these children a chance.

And I know that any impact I had on the lives of these children pales in comparison to the impact they had on mine. While my current job is directly related to Jumpstart’s mission, the most important lesson that Jumpstart taught me is that we can all make a difference for children and families—whether that be through volunteering, Jumpstart’s Read for the Record, calling elected officials, or becoming a doctor or teacher. During our Jumpstart years and after our service is done, we all have a role to play in helping young children get a fair start so they can defy statistics and grow up to have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.

Note: All children’s names have been changed.

Together, we can help all children build the key language and literacy skills they need to take on the world.

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