Andrew Ribner/Visual Editor

Alpacas Rory and Duffy arrived at Macdonough Elementary School this July to spend time with 13 excited munchkins. The occasion: Kindergarten Kickstart, a five-week intensive summer program for rising kindergarteners who have not yet attended preschool.

Kickstart, the brainchild of Assistant Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman, allows college students to apply knowledge about early childhood development in a practical setting, while providing a high quality preschool education to at-risk children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend a preschool-like program. The Kickstart program also acts as a practical supplement to her research on children’s cognitive development.

“In the service-learning component of [PSYCH 206], students volunteered in preschools and I was very impressed by how capable they were and how readily they applied the intellectual content of the course in their work with young children,” Schusterman said. “I thought they could do even more, and as I mulled over how to put their talents to use, I had the broad idea of college students running summer pre-K programs.”

Discussions about Kickstart began in the spring, with the ambitious goal of beginning the program that very summer. The short amount of time posed some logistical problems, particularly for funding.

“The short time frame from having the idea in April, to having [Macdonough Principal John] Romeo invite us to start it at Macdonough in May, to starting it July 2—that was the biggest challenge,” Shusterman said.

North End Action Team (NEAT) Executive Director Izzi Greenberg joined Kickstart as a non-profit fiscal partner. According to Shusterman, the Kickstart team used the fundraising platform, crowd-sourced more than $6,000 through social networking, and received a significant donation from the Macdonough Family Resource Center. The program was intended to be inexpensive to run and free for participants, so teachers also took advantage of resources they already owned, or that were available for free.

“The idea is that it’s low-cost; we use empty classrooms and use private funding to pay the teachers,”said Kickstart teacher and organizer Sydney Lewis ’14. “The teachers are college students, so they’re eager, enthusiastic, educated, and looking for productive and interesting and worthwhile summer work. They’d be compensated well, and also have a pretty neat job working with communities right next to universities. So that would be a partnership between a university and an elementary school with an empty preschool classroom for the summer.”

The teaching staff included Lewis, Taylor Deloach ’13, Julia Vermeulen ’14, and Felicia Johnson, a certified teacher at Macdonough Elementary school and recent graduate of CCSU, who was recommended by Romeo. Other Wesleyan students and Middletown residents also visited Macdonough periodically to do workshops with the children.

“Various people, including us, were concerned about having college students run the program and how major problems could be handled,” Shusterman said. “But Mr. Romeo worked quickly to solve those concerns by putting in an experienced certified teacher to handle any complex issues that might arise.”

There was no official teacher training for the Wesleyan students involved this year, though they all had taken a developmental psychology course and researched preschool teaching prior to the start of the program. According to Lewis, if the program expands and more teachers are involved, they will develop a curriculum for teacher training. She also stressed the importance of some elements of teaching that cannot be developed in a training program.

“We definitely could have benefited from more training, but at the same time I think that our intuition and our experience working with children served us really well while we were teaching,” Lewis said. “That’s not really something you can teach in a training program, that sense of intuition and flexibility. What made the four of us working together really efficient is that we were all flexible and shared roles and that’s not something we really could have planned; we just got lucky.”

Andrew Ribner ’14, who was an on-call substitute teacher and took photos for the preschool, commented on the benefits of having college-aged teachers who are enthusiastic for a short-term commitment, and who are then able to supplement their own education with experience in the field.

“One of the advantages to having college students is that they’re just so motivated,” Ribner said. “Being a preschool teacher at a preschool is a very hard job and it’s very underpaid—I think the average salary is about $30,000 a year. And you spend five to eight hours a day playing with and cleaning up after kids… [College students] know that this is only for five or six weeks so they’re going to give it their all.”

In addition to free play, dramatic play, dance, singing, art, and other creative activities, children in the program went on field trips once a week. Locations included the Middletown Fire Station, O’Rourke’s Diner, It’s Only Natural, Kidcity, and the Center for the Arts Dance Studio, for a dance workshop with a Wesleyan student.

Visitors to Macdonough included another Wesleyan student who offered a West African dance workshop, weekly American Sign Language classes, and the alpacas from Summer Brook Valley Farm.

“I really enjoyed working with the kids one-on-one,” Lewis said. “It was such a short amount of time to really make an impact, but there were kids who I taught to write their names, and taught letter and number sounds, and it’s really incredible to have taught them something like that and see the difference.”

Similarly, Ribner said that, for him, the best part was watching the children’s progress.

“We could see the kids would grow so much socially and cognitively,” Ribner said. “There were so many who didn’t know what letters were when they came into the program, but who were able to write their names by the end—not just because they had rote memorization. They could understand the sounds of the letters.”

Ribner noted that the children were also, of course, exceptionally adorable.

In addition to observable social progress and new skills, the children were also tested using the DIAL-4, a standardized developmental assessment of preschoolers’ conceptual skills, during the first and last week of the five-week program.

“It is a pretty coarse measure, but we were looking for something standardized so that we could try to detect any gains, and also have normed standards by which to interpret them,” Shusterman said. “Almost every child improved. On average we saw a five-point increase, which was a statistically significant change in just 19 [school] days. To me this is a very promising start, but we really do need a control group in order to understand the source of this change.”

Lewis said that, while a five-week program cannot make up for the lack of intellectual stimulation that often occurs during the first five years of development for children from under-privileged communities, opportunities like Kickstart can make a big difference in a child’s growth.

“Programs like this are the solution,” Lewis said. “Not that I believe there’s one solution to the education mess that we have, but whenever I get into a discussion about education, we always get back to early childhood. I really, completely believe that children with high-quality early childhood education, before they even get to kindergarten, are successful, love learning, are curious, and eventually develop critical thinking skills.”

After the success at Macdonough this summer, Kickstart has been potentially approved at four additional sites for next year—three in Middletown and one in California.

“I would love to have the program run at more than one site in Middletown or Connecticut next summer, so that I can get a sense of what it would take to expand Kickstart without compromising quality or efficacy,” Shusterman said. “I am pleased that the University has been supportive, and I hope to keep Wesleyan students involved in building Kickstart into a strong and sustainable program.”

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