Preparing Children on the Range

Claudia Miner examines the challenges of getting early education to minority children in the most rural environments

People traveling to Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border are undoubtedly awestruck by its beauty, vastness, and solitude. It’s the mythical Wild West as portrayed in movies from Stagecoach to Easy Rider to Forest Gump. But epic grandeur aside, did they ever wonder about where the people in Monument Valley live and, more to the point, go to school?

San Juan County School District, located in the southeasternmost corner of Utah, gives new meaning to the term rural school district; it covers 7,500 square miles. We know the “big kids” probably ride the bus quite a way each day to go to school, but what about the district’s youngest learners, its prekindergarten students?

Learning at home is a viable preschool alternative — and in some rural areas, like Monument Valley and many others in Utah, it may be the only option. When you consider that from birth until high school graduation, only 13% of a child’s waking hours are spent in school, the idea of expanding on the home’s natural potential to support learning makes great sense.

Early education in Utah is being transformed by a program established six years ago by the Utah Legislature: UPSTART is an in-home, technology-delivered kindergarten-readiness program that gives preschool-aged children an individualized reading, math, and science curriculum. The emphasis is on reading fundamentals.

With the program, four-year-olds master skills using early-learning software under the tutelage of their guides, Rusty and Rosy Raccoon. Participants begin by learning and recognizing the alphabet and move on to blending sounds (/k/ /a/ /t/ to cat) and changing sounds in a word to create new words (cat to bat). Altogether, the software provides more than 450 hours of sequenced instruction to give each child an individualized learning path that’s adapted to that child’s needs and skill level.

Today’s children are digital natives and adapt quickly and easily to software-based instruction. Plus, the program’s participation requirement is just 15 minutes a day, five days a week-an age — appropriate amount of screen time that can be easily integrated into the child’s daily routine.

Children learn at their own pace, mastering concepts that build upon the basics of phonics, comprehension, and vocabulary, language concepts, and phonological awareness. To a four-year-old participant, it means learning and laughing at stories which introduce word patterns like “dock, dairy, deli, dentist, and dragon” or “rhinoceros, rainbow, rose, rash, and ranch.” By the time a child advances to a story called “What Will Sara Be?” she’s approaching comprehension of concepts associated with future careers such as astronaut, architect, sculptor, veterinarian, and forest ranger.

Technology is one of the keys to UPSTART’s success, as is the frequent, proactive support given to parents. One of my colleagues is fond of saying, “Two things make UPSTART work: the software and the parents.” To aid the latter, we offer written materials, in-person and online training, and emails that include ideas for offline activities that parents can do to help prepare their children for school. Everything, from training to the program website, is offered in both Spanish and English. This dual-language support system is truly a partnership that ensures children get the most from these learning opportunities.

Some of the parents have little or no computer experience, and that doesn’t matter; the most important things they can bring to UPSTART are care, enthusiasm, and follow-through. Children need to be encouraged to work independently, and most four-year-olds can use the program by themselves within 20 minutes. If a child gets an answer wrong, the computer program follows up later with activities and games to re-teach and reinforce that skill set again until the child really masters the concept.

Results for All Early Learners
Beginning in 2009, UPSTART was implemented to some degree in every public school district throughout Utah. Substantial efforts were made to reach low-income and minority students, and in the first year of the program, 61% of UPSTART participants came from low-income homes. By the fifth year, that number increased to 72%, with 20% classifying their ethnicities as “non-white.” The program provides state funding for the installation of computers and internet access in homes without them. All together, 7,000 children participated in UPSTART during its first five years. Now, in year six alone, the program has expanded to include just over 6,000 children, or 15% of Utah’s four-year-olds.

Outcomes are regularly reported to the Utah State Office of Education and the Utah Legislature, which also built into the program an external evaluation conducted by the Los-Angeles–based Evaluation and Training Institute (ETI).

Results have been more than we had ever hoped for. To date, at the conclusion of the program year, children who have met the usage requirements have been assessed at the kindergarten advanced level. “Kindergarten advanced” means that the children start kindergarten at a level roughly equivalent to the ability level of students nationwide in the last three months of kindergarten. This average is regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic locale. The gains were greater for low-income children and for children not attending other preschool.

These findings mirror school-based studies of Waterford Early Learning software, where children using the software outperformed comparison groups in most, if not all, examined assessment measures.

The external evaluator for the project, ETI president Dr. Jon Hobbs, looked at the difference in growth rates between UPSTART children and a control group and showed two times the growth for UPSTART children measuring with the overall BRIGANCE and three times the growth using the overall Bader. In conclusion, he noted, “Based on the… results, the evidence suggests that UPSTART’s use of education technology in a home-based approach has considerable merit for facilitating the development of school readiness in young preschool children.”

The experts, however, were reiterating what parents have already realized. During December 2009, research group Dan Jones & Associates interviewed 321 parents and caregivers of children enrolled in the first year of UPSTART regarding their experiences with the program. The results were extremely positive: 98% said they would recommend the program; 97% said they would enroll another child in UPSTART; 96% declared their children more ready to enter kindergarten because of UPSTART; and 92% supported expansion of the program to serve more Utah children. In subsequent years, we’ve queried the parents, and each year 99% have said they believed UPSTART helped prepare their children for kindergarten.

The survey findings were no surprise to us as parents literally wait in line to tell us the good the program has done at UPSTART graduations. Said one mother speaking for many, “UPSTART is the reason my son is prepared to go to school.” Another reported, “UPSTART basically taught her to read, which I think is amazing coming from a computer program. She goes to regular preschool, too, and UPSTART does so much more for her academically.” And from one of our Spanish-speaking parents, “(Mi hija) Aprendió mucho ingles y como sumar. En Head Start me dicen que (ella) aprende mucho mejor y más rápido gracias a las clases que recibe en UPSTART.” “[(My daughter) learned a lot of English and how to add. In Head Start they tell me that (she) learns much better and more quickly thanks to the classes she receives in UPSTART.”]

i3 Validation Grant
In late 2013, the program’s success earned Waterford a highly competitive i3 Validation grant from the federal government. Only 25 grantees were selected from 618 applicants, and Validation grants are only awarded to programs that have strong evidence of results.

The i3 grant has made it possible for UPSTART to work closely with Utah’s 18 most rural school districts. To give you a sense of the landscape, the smallest district, Tintic, has approximately ten four-year-old preschoolers, and the largest, Duchesne, has about 470 (these are “approximate” and “about” because no one really knows until the children register for kindergarten).

Last year, we met with the district superintendents to see how UPSTART could best serve the districts’ needs. What we learned is every district is different. Some had a large number of Spanish-speaking children, while some had none; some once had Head Start programs that were closed completely by the recent federal sequester; and some had pre-K programs for special education that were inadequate to meet a greater overall need. The i3 grant allows us to use UPSTART to provide a solution for each district’s needs. We also learned that the role of superintendent in these districts is very different from that of their urban counterparts. In rural districts, superintendents wear many, many hats. One of our superintendents, for example, coaches basketball, played Daddy Warbucks in the senior play, and teaches ballroom dancing when needed.

The grant has also made it possible for us to provide funds to the districts to hire an i3 liaison to represent UPSTART in each district. Without a doubt, this is my favorite program enhancement. When we brought the liaisons together for training last spring, it was clear that we were fortunate to be working with an outstanding group. They believe in education, and they have helped introduce UPSTART to their communities in a way that Waterford alone could never have done.

Chelsee Dalene, liaison for North Sanpete, commented, “When I heard about the UP­START program, I was so excited! This program will greatly benefit our small community. There are many families who cannot afford to pay for similar programs, and many children only receive access to a computer when they are at school. I look forward to promoting this program and being a district liaison.”

Lynea Bednarik, South Summit liaison, echoed Dalene’s sentiment: “I am so excited for this position as an UPSTART Liaison. I have become fairly familiar with the program, and I have a niece who was part of the pilot. I am passionate about children and their education. I strongly feel the need to better prepare our children for kindergarten, and I believe UPSTART can help. I can’t wait to bring this program and the assessments to our district. I look forward to seeing the growth within each child and to having the ability to measure it.”

And they all agree, as one liaison put it, “This is a new age: kids today are ready to use technology and are absolutely unafraid of it.”

While participation in the 18 rural districts was only slightly more than 100 families last year, with the help of the liaisons and the i3 grant, we are serving more than 920 children in those districts this year.

At the request of the liaisons, who wanted every community to have an in-person experience with the program, UPSTART staff, including summer interns, traveled to all 18 districts and presented 80 training sessions. One thing became very clear during those sessions: it really doesn’t take Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley to prove that parents love their children and want the best for them. It was evident at every training session and in every careful question from the parents. Mothers came; fathers came; grandmothers and grandfathers came; siblings came; kindergarten teachers came; and even some superintendents came. And they left knowing that there was a support team for each of them comprised of UPSTART staff and their own district liaisonz.

All in all, the district liaisons have infused a new level of energy into the program. Melinda Dalton, Garfield District liaison (Garfield District includes Bryce Canyon, for any outdoor enthusiasts) recently offered this new insight: “UPSTART also teaches independence. Because kids are learning at home, they’re not competing with others, and they can gain confidence in their abilities at their own pace. Some kids get a concept in three steps, while others take 15 to master the same thing. The software is continually assessing the child’s performance and skill set without the kid knowing it, and reinforcing key concepts along the way.”

Currently, the liaisons are working with Waterford staff to make certain participating families are meeting their usage requirement of 15 minutes per day. They are planning community events in each district that to introduce prekindergarteners to their future brick-and-mortar schools to make the transition to school a little easier in the fall. They are also working with me to use blogs and online activities to offer parents an array of activities to help teach some key noncognitive skills. Our next activity is to look at executive-function skills and strategize ways to translate the academic research into usable information for our parents.

And remember those children in Monument Valley? The school district and liaison there have successfully recruited many children in the area to participate in UPSTART, even going so far as to provide solar panels to run program computers for children in several homes without electricity. This is merely another way UPSTART is serving rural Utah’s youngest learners.

Claudia Miner, PhD, is the vice president for development and UPSTART program director at Waterford Institute, a nonprofit research center and education-technology publisher. Waterford Institute was selected to administer the program after an RFP process.