Four-year-olds in Grand County will benefit from a statewide study of an in-home preschool curriculum. Registered children who qualify for assistance will receive a free computer and Internet service at their home to access the cloud-based UPSTART program.
Grand County is one of 18 rural counties in Utah that has agreed to participate in an $11.5 million federal grant to expand UPSTART—a state-funded preschool curriculum of reading, math, and science. The program, which stands for Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow, was developed by the Waterford Institute, a research and education technology nonprofit organization based in Sandy.
Since UPSTART’s pilot program in 2009, more than 7,000 children, mostly in urban and suburban areas, have participated. Results from the program’s recent evaluation studies show that the program significantly increases performance levels in children of all backgrounds.
“It should fill in a lot of gaps with our kids and really help us out, so we’re really excited about it,” Grand County School District superintendent Scott Crane said.
Research from economist and Nobel Laureate James Heckman has demonstrated that “ability gaps,” both cognitive and non-cognitive, cannot be made up in the later grades of school.
“The basic skills needed for success are formed before children enter school,” he states on his Web site at heckmanequation.org.
A pamphlet from the Utah Office of Education lists more than 40 skills children are expected to have before entering kindergarten, including motor, social and emotional skills, and reading, language and literacy skills.
“Kids have to learn more at an earlier age,” said Claudia Minor, vice president of development at Waterford Institute. “One of the things UPSTART does is takes care of the cognitive part of what the children need to know when they enter kindergarten.”
The program is statewide and residents in rural counties have always been eligible, but reaching the rural audiences has been challenging, Minor said.
“The families that can probably benefit from this program the most, probably don’t have a computer,” she said. “So we have to use some really old-fashioned marketing, hanging up flyers, and things like that.”
The federal Investing in Innovation grant pays for a five-year UPSTART study that will effectively spread the program to a wider audience.
“This money is only for the 18 rural districts so that we can really go in there and concentrate and see how we can work to serve those districts’ needs,” Minor said.
In a 2012 evaluation report from the Utah Foundation, the state’s rural schools were found to have unique challenges arising from their small size and resulting financial constraints. Many do not have the money that urban and suburban schools have, with which to provide a full array of offerings.
Starting this year, Waterford will work with the Grand County School District and a program liaison to recruit and register 70 percent of Grand County’s “pre-k” children—children who will start kindergarten in 2015.
“One of the things we’re so excited about with this grant is having these district liaisons,” Minor said. “We’re going to have a person in the community to help us recruit, help us support the family, and to help the children transition into the school.”
Rhiana Medina, the Moab Valley Multicultural Center’s executive director and liaison for Grand County’s Upstart program, said the program will have a comprehensive recruitment plan.
“We’ll have certain hours where people can come and see a demonstration,” she said. “We will probably have some Saturday events. We’ll be visiting the various preschools and daycares in town.”
As part of their involvement in the Investing in Innovation program, registered children will participate in UPSTART beginning with the 2014-15 school year until kindergarten. Then, in the summer months after kindergarten, first, and second grade, they will use an UPSTART summer-school component.
Participating children use the program for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Because it is cloud-based, the children who do not currently have access to a computer or the Internet at home, and whose family is at or below 200 percent of poverty, will receive both at no cost.
The reading, math, and science curriculum for the program is Waterford’s “Rusty and Rosy Learn with Me,” designed to be engaging with colorful animation, activities and songs. While the child plays and demonstrates what he or she knows, the software constantly tests and adapts to his or her level of understanding.
“The software won’t move on to the next step until the child’s mastered the thing before it,” Minor said.
The school district also uses “Rusty and Rosy Learn with Me” in kindergarten through second grade.
“We have a grant from the state to purchase that program,” Crane said. “It’s a fun little program. It’s interactive. It supports the instruction they’re getting from the teachers.”
UPSTART includes a curriculum for children with reading difficulties, including dyslexia. Each family’s personal care representative, assigned to support and assist the family throughout the program, can help identify different learning needs.
The family support service that is part of the program is thorough and designed to ensure the UPSTART child uses the program regularly. Support staff work with parents and caregivers, in either English or Spanish, to provide motivation and tools for use outside of the program.
Waterford has two goals it hopes the program will achieve: bridge the early-learning gap for preschool-aged children, and avert the summer slide, or loss of learning that occurs over the summer months.
“We are really excited for this opportunity,” Medina said. “We value education here at the center and we’re excited to be part of a project that will help the readiness of kids going into kindergarten.”
Program designed to help children learn before kindergarten
Parents and caregivers interested in registering their child for the study program can call the Moab Valley Multicultural Center at 259-5444.
To learn more about the state-funded UPSTART program, go to UtahUPSTART.org or call 1-800-669-4533.
“Kids have to learn more at an earlier age. One of the things UPSTART does is takes care of the cognitive part of what the children need to know when they enter kindergarten.”