Campus Spotlight: Theresa Pumilia

According to the Jumpstart Organization, one in every three children in America enters kindergarten without the skills necessary to succeed. Theresa Pumilia, the newly inducted site manager of the St. John’s chapter of Jumpstart and former pre-school teacher, views her role in this organization as a mode through which she can support and facilitate the early literacy development of pre-school children in the community. After teaching for five years and being named the 2007 Teacher of the Year in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia region, Pumilia found her way to
St. John’s.

“When I came to St. John’s, I was in search of a different opportunity,” said Pumilia. “I enjoyed the literacy aspect of teaching and Jumpstart provides a way to reach out to more people. It’s not just about working with the 90 plus St. John’s students that participate, because we reach so many more children than I could have in my classroom of just 25.”

Founded at Yale University in 1993, Jumpstart began as a single campus-based service program and grew into a nationwide non-profit organization that currently serves nearly 12,000 pre-school children in 19 different states. Funded by AmeriCorps, Jumpstart’s national service partner, this organization selects schools with under-served populations, considering both the academic and socio-economic status of its children.

“Jumpstart basically looks around at the status of each pre-school to determine if we’d be a good fit for them,” said Pumilia. “Then we go through a student checklist to find which students would truly benefit from the program.”

The St. John’s chapter of Jumpstart, which was introduced in 2004, currently serves seven different local schools and over 90 children using a model that was designed to foster their three chief concerns: school success, which builds childhood literacy, family involvement, which reinforces learning, and future teachers, as Jumpstart seeks to assist pre-educators in expanding their skills. Each student participant, called a Corps member, undergoes 60 hours of early childhood education training by Pumilia and then is assigned to one child. They then enter the classroom and help their child to develop their language, reading and social interaction skills.

“One of my greatest joys here is being able to pull upon a lot of my personal experiences from working in a classroom during Corps member training,” sa,” Pumilia remarks. “By doing that, we increase the Corps members’ knowledge and reliability, and since they’re having positive experiences, they’ll want to go out and do more. In that way, we get to help more children.”

Led by a team leader who facilitates the movement of each session, Corps members head into the classroom twice a week to interact with the children. During the one-to-one correspondence portion of the session, the pre-schoolers choose books to read with their Corps member, which is using the dialogic reading method.

“The Corps member will sit down with the child in a comfortable manner, hold the book with them, show them how to hold the book and put their finger underneath the right words to show that the words have meaning,” said Pumilia. “They’ll ask open-ended questions that get the child to open up and express what he or she is learning, feeling and experiencing through the literature.”

Circle time consists of activities such as singing, finger-plays and movement games, all of which are meant to cultivate communication and social skills. Choice Time precedes this and provides the children with the opportunity to role play with their Corps member, choose where they want to play and participate in small group activities, providing each child with both problem-solving and experimental ability.

“The Corps member is never supposed to seem overbearing to the child and is always coming down to the child’s eye level. They kind of get to act like a child as well,” Pumilia joked. “Role playing in a restaurant, for instance, would require them to use menus, writing pads, a telephone and other materials, all which spur literacy. They get the children to really engage and use different vocabulary.”

Pumilia and other site manager Amanda Lenar serve as mentors to the Corps members, observing the sessions and offering constructive criticism on how to serve the children more efficiently. Pumilia also has the responsibility of guiding the volunteer coordinator, Yolanda Fullard, in creating the organization’s different community service events. Her favorite aspect, however, is making an impact in the lives of both the children and the students.

“The best part of this experience has been seeing a Corps member’s face light up because their child has written their name for the first time or learning that they’ve decided to come to the School of Education and become a teacher because of their involvement,” said Pumilia. “To know that you were indirectly part of that is the
greatest feeling.”