Toy Library and Jumpstart aim to close achievement gap
The Hunts Point Alliance for Children will launch an ambitious initiative for toddlers and their parents this fall that will include a new “Toy Library” where children and caregivers can play together and an expanded Jumpstart program, along with a new social worker at PS 48 and a medical program in partnership with the Bella Vista Health Center.
“It’s going to change the way the community looks,” said Carmen Rodriguez, who has a child in pre-K and another in fourth grade and who said she was “ecstatic about everything that’s going on in Hunts Point.”
The new program is aimed at closing the achievement gap between children from poor families and children from wealthier families. Nationwide, half the children from low-income neighborhoods start first grade as much as two years behind their peers, according to Jumpstart, the national education program aimed at low-income communities.
Local elementary school principals say fewer than 1 in 10 kindergarteners are ready for kindergarten, according to Maryann Hedaa, founder and managing director of Hunts Point Alliance for Children (HPAC).
Youngsters are starting school “not knowing how to sit still, hold a pencil, recognize letters or orient a book,” says Myung Lee, executive director of Jumpstart in New York City.
HPAC’s new community center at 889 Hunts Point Avenue will house the Toy Library, a key component of the new program, where parents will be encouraged to bond with their children and help guide their development.
The Toy Library will be divided into several areas, each devoted to helping toddlers practice a different kind of skill. Stations will be devoted to constructive play such as building and weaving to help kids develop fine motor skills; active play, centered around real-life activities like transportation (toy buses) and food (kitchen stations); and imaginary play, where children can create stories. Once a week there will be a music and dance program for parents and kids.
Because Hunts Point is a waterfront neighborhood, the theme for the Toy Library will be based on the nursery rhyme “Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod,” about three fishermen at sea in a wooden shoe. The play area will be shaped like a pirate ship, and have a “sailboat/explorer theme,” according to Eden Mohammed, HPAC’s new director of early childhood education. Parents will be able to borrow toys to bring them home for up to a week.
In addition to creating a new space for little children, the HPAC program aims to make Jumpstart available to more families. According to the organization’s research, there are six children for every pre-school space, and the ratio could be far higher, because no one knows how many undocumented families live in Hunts Point.
Noting that the process of gaining one of those scarce seats is long and complex, HPAC aims to use the new program to “remove the barriers” that exist between parents and early childhood classrooms, said Hedaa. Community leaders will sit down with parents and help them “navigate and get access to these programs,” she said.
HPAC will also use grants from Project Launch, the Guttman Foundation and Goldman Sachs to expand Jumpstart to the New York City Housing Authority building at 875 Irvine Street. As at PS 48, volunteers will spend two hours twice a week with the children.
In addition, a mental health specialist will join the pre-K and kindergarten program at PS 48. The specialist will work primarily with the students, but will also provide classroom management training for teachers.
Jumpstart volunteer Julie Gilgore, 25, says the biggest change she sees in the kids she works with is that “they increase their vocabulary a lot.” Jumpstart “helps them be on the same level as kids from other neighborhoods who have been in preschool for years,” she said.
While Jumpstart focuses on toddlers nearing kindergarten age, the Toy Library on Hunts Point Avenue will be aimed at younger children.
Mohammed, who specializes in children from birth until age 3, will lead workshops to encourage parent to touch and make eye contact with their babies and to sing and read to them. “We want to help parents fall in love with their children, which is difficult in these neighborhoods,” she says.
Jill Roche, HPAC’s executive director, emphasized that the play center will be a place to “drop-in, not a drop-off.”
Says Roche about HPAC’s new plans, “We need to make people realize that when you’re playing with a 2-year-old, you’re setting them up for success in high school, and for the rest of their life.”