Jiyon Ruffin of Morristown gets good grades at Salve Regina University and plays defensive end for the football varsity. He’s on schedule to graduate next year and pursue a career in broadcasting.
But Jiyon already belongs to a pretty special graduating class, one that started him on the right path before he could read or write.
He was in the first group of children taught by Preschool Advantage, a Morristown-based preschool network known at that time as Project Acorn.
From the start, its mission has been helping kids from families that are struggling financially.
“It’s kind of rare, even at that young age, to have that kind of support system propelling you toward success,” Jiyon recounted in a phone interview from his campus in Newport, R.I.
Jiyon’s parents and several alumni plan to attend the Preschool Advantage annual gala, called Turning Leaves, at the Springbrook Country Club in Morris Township on Oct. 24, 2013.
Thursday’s dinner will honor Kim and Finn Wentworth, whose generosity has helped many children like Jiyon.
Finn is founder of Normandy Real Estate Partners, former president of YankeesNets LLC–-the holding company for the Yankees, Nets and Devils-–and an architect of the YES Network on cable television.
‘WE HELP GAP KIDS’
Project Acorn was started by Jill and Stuart Lasser in 1995.
At the time, Stuart owned a Saturn car dealership and he was scouting preschools for their child. He wondered how many families could swing such an expense–which nowadays can reach $10,000 a year.
“We’ve funded hundreds of children,” said Karen Titterton, who progressed from a Montessori school teacher and parent of a preschooler to part-time program assistant and then executive director of the nonprofit, which changed its name to Preschool Advantage two years ago.
Morristown partners include Children on the Green, Temple B’Nai Or and the Presbyterian Church Nursery School. In all, there are 18 partner schools across Morris County, including schools in Boonton, Dover, Jefferson and Mount Olive. They work together to hold tuition to $4,000 a year for half-day sessions.
“We help gap kids,” explained Adrienne Kirby, a trustee of Preschool Advantage. “Those who make too much money for Head Start, but don’t make enough for preschool.”
A study in Tennessee by Vanderbilt University found that preschool students scored 82 percent higher on early literacy and math skills than children who did not attend preschool.
Between birth and age 6, a child’s brain is “like a sponge,” Karen said. Low -income kids, who are not exposed to as many educational opportunities, enter preschools with language and verbal skills that trail better-off kids by about one-third.
Preschool Advantage makes special efforts to help children from the Jersey Battered Women’s Service and Homeless Solutions Inc. Unlike some government programs, Preschool Advantage does not require that parents be working to qualify.
Last year, Preschool Advantage had 63 pupils. Twenty of them were 3 years old, and the rest were age 4.
Nearly half came from single-parent homes; the household average income was just under $30,000. They spoke a total of nine languages.
With no state or federal funding, the program survives thanks to private donations. In 2012, it had $440,000 in revenues and $377,000 in expenses, with net assets of $1.1 million.
Preschool Advantage is just old enough to have alumni in college, at schools like Carnegie Mellon, Howard University, James Madison University, Lehigh, Penn State and Rutgers.
Karen said she has contacted just over half of the original Project Acorn graduating class. All of those kids either are in college or on track to enroll. Community service is part of their lives. There have been no teen pregnancies, Karen said.
One of the hardest challenges for Preschool Advantage, Adrienne Kirby said, is deciding who to accept into the program.
The selection committee studies parents closely, to determine if they will be supportive of the child’s education.
“Most of these families that come to us are in tough circumstances. It’s tough to decide who gets in,” Adrienne said.
“Your heartstrings go out to the child. It comes down to what’s the best use to put the money to? Are the parents trying to better themselves, through schooling or betterment programs? Who will advance their kid’s schooling the best they can?”
The committee wants to know if parents take their children to the library, Adrienne said. Do they read books to them and play with puzzles?
One father said he was going to a bachelor party in the Bahamas; that suggested the family’s financial need was not desperate, Adrienne said.
“We can’t afford to fund everyone. We find those with the greatest need,” Karen echoed.
The Ruffins could not have sent Jiyon to preschool without Project Acorn’s financial support, Sherry Ruffin said. She works for a family daycare program and her husband has spent his career employed at a wastewater treatment plant.
Preschool gave their son the chance to socialize with peers in an academic setting, not just on play dates, Sherry said. When Jiyon advanced to kindergarten at the Normandy Park School, “he took off running. He was ready to go.”
Described by his mom as a self-starter with leadership qualities, Jiyon attended the Morristown-Beard School en route to college. He is not a Rhodes Scholar, Sherry said, “but he holds his own. I attribute that to the great start he had.”
Jiyon said he remains friendly with a couple of his preschool pals.
LOSING HIS SHYNESS
Preschool is especially helpful for children who come from homes where English is not spoken, Adrienne said. Preschool immerses children in English, and gives them a jump on life by providing socialization- and learning skills.
They become more confident in public speaking, an essential part of the program, Karen added. Shelter kids and others with similarly nomadic lives also get stability and structure.
“It’s all a win-win, in our opinion,” said Adrienne.
That appears to be true for Marwan Moustaffa, now 4 ½.
Marwan spoke no English when he was brought to Morris County from Egypt last year by his father, Abbas Moustaffa, a naturalized U.S. citizen who works as a cook at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison.
Since enrolling in Preschool Advantage in Boonton, Marwan has made important strides, the father said.
“Now, he speaks English a little better,” and is losing some of his shyness, Abbas said. “Now I notice an improvement in his behavior.”
Marwan’s half-day sessions also enable Abbas’ wife, who was an accountant in Egypt, to study nursing at County College of Morris.
Financial help from Preschool Advantage was essential for all of this, Abbas said.
“Otherwise, I would keep Marwan home,” he said.
Tickets to the Preschool Advantage gala are $175 and can be reserved online.