UChicago students help launch preschool support program in Woodlawn

Pilot program designed to engage and benefit participants of all ages

Annika Frazier has always been quick to sign up her children and grandchildren to take part in University of Chicago’s community-facing programs but, until recently, had never participated in any herself. That changed in June when Frazier joined eight fellow South Side residents, a handful of UChicago students, and two groups of local preschoolers for a unique pilot program designed to engage and benefit participants of all ages. 

Created and led by UChicago’s Jumpstart initiative within the Office of Civic Engagement’s Neighborhood Schools Program, the Intergen for the Win pilot invited local residents with an interest in early childhood development to work alongside UChicago students in two Woodlawn childcare centers as part of a paid, 10-week summer experience. 

The pilot aimed to extend Jumpstart’s typically school-year-only programming through the summer months when most UChicago students are off campus and to privately-owned childcare centers in Woodlawn in addition to the CPS-affiliated classrooms the school-year team supports.

For Frazier, the pilot was a way to ease back into the workforce after a decade out of it, a way to connect with other community members and ideas, and a fountain of new information for her own parenting approach toward her children and grandchildren.

“For me personally, not having worked formally in 10 years, this has been what I needed,” Frazier, who previously worked in childcare, said. “It has been what I needed to reframe how I communicate and rethink my parenting style and my teaching style.”

On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday mornings throughout the program, Frazier and other local participants brought a tailored version of UChicago Jumpstart’s preschool support curriculum to Hello Baby, a free drop-in space for babies, toddlers, and their caregivers in Woodlawn. Other members of the Intergen team supported children and teachers at Woodlawn’s Tiny Scholars Academy childcare center. 

NSP’s Jumpstart initiative, a partner of the national nonprofit of the same name, aims to provide language, literacy, and social-emotional programming for preschool children from under-resourced communities and promote quality early learning for all children. UChicago student employees and volunteers—and, in this case, community members—engaged the 2- to 5-year-olds in small groups, reading books, playing games, learning vocabulary, and otherwise helping them develop key language and literacy skills. Participating community residents were required to apply, interview, and undergo the same background check process each childcare center requires of its staff. Jumpstart teams also took part in regular community-building activities throughout the experience.

Connecting with families 

Layla Haynor, a fourth-year student originally from Tennessee, has worked with Jumpstart during the school year since her first year on campus. With the launch of the Intergen pilot, Haynor spent her first summer in Chicago serving as a team leader. The experience, she said, was a meaningful way to connect to local preschoolers and their families—getting soaked in a playful water balloon fight sticks out to Haynor as the moment she knew the children felt comfortable with their new classroom visitors—but also to work with and learn from participating residents of all ages. 

“Working directly with these community members, they just bring so much different life experience,” Haynor said. “Most of the community members that we were working with are either mothers or grandparents or they work in the community directly, so they have a lot more insight into what’s actually happening here. They know the neighborhood better, they know the parents and students better than we do, so they’re able to bring in that stronger sense of community and guide us a little bit through things that maybe we didn’t understand. So, I think that’s been really important as a student to be building that type of strong relationship to the South Side community.”

A Global Studies major, Haynor is deciding what kind of career she’d like to pursue after UChicago but she’s confident she’ll be able to put the lessons she learned through the Intergen pilot to good use.

“I have gotten to experience and refine my skills communicating with different community members, different levels of authority, and trying to navigate different office relationships, trying to get everyone connected and working together,” she said. “The experience also helped me gain confidence being in a workplace setting in general which hopefully will be really good for me whenever I graduate.”

'They're always so happy to see us' 

Participating community member Tiffany Houston saw the program as a way to sharpen her own skill set as she completes her master’s degree in applied behavior analysis online.

“I really like that I have been able to build a rapport and relationship with people who I probably would have never met aside from this experience—different walks of life, different ages—and being in the classroom with the children just made me so excited to see their little faces. They’re always so happy to see us and considering everything that’s going on in the world that’s not so good, when I step into that space, at least for a few hours, I get to be a big kid again and really feel this genuine love from the children who we interact with,” Houston said. 

The program, Houston said, also felt like an important way to build bridges between the University and the community and amongst students and community members alike. With aspirations to open her own community childcare facility someday, Houston left the experience feeling inspired and supported.

“My brain is still trying to process everything but just being in these spaces lets me know that I can do it,” she said. “I may not have it all figured out but it’s okay, I can get there.”

–This story was first published on the appeared on UChicago’s civic engagement website.