With visit to Waterford, U.S. Education Official Meets Makers of Preschool Program Awarded Federal Grant

A U.S. Department of Education official on July 8 visited Waterford Institute, the makers of an in-home preschool program that with the aid of a federal grant is being studied for its effectiveness in rural areas of Utah.

John B. King Jr., Senior Advisor Delegated Duties of Deputy Secretary of Education, said the institute’s preschool program UPSTART is a “vehicle” to support early learning experiences for children.

Waterford received an i3 (Invest In Innovation Fund) grant in 2013 to study UPSTART’s impact in the state’s 18 most rural school districts. More than 1,000 completed the program last year, said Waterford President Benjamin Heuston.

Heuston told King he is continually exploring ways to deliver UPSTART to more kids. South Carolina has launched a pilot project based on the Utah state UPSTART, which provides the free, in-home preschool program, Heuston said. Idaho is also considering a similar project. He said he hoped federal policies could allow UPSTART to be expanded as a pre-K resource in other regions.

“I’m trying to figure out how to take this to other places. There are children whose needs are not being fully addressed,” Heuston said. He also noted that the program can be funded for far less per child than the minimum state funding for many preschool programs.

The duo agreed that kids should have access to Universal pre-K, but that UPSTART could serve as an option to help underserved kids who may not otherwise be ready for kindergarten.

“We should maximize opportunities for kids to try to go to high quality pre-K as well as much as possible wherever they are, and where kids don’t have that opportunity, we should do more to try to support their learning, and this is one vehicle to do that,” King said of UPSTART.

Waterford, a non-profit research institute founded in 1976, has focused on pre-K through second grade to help close the early learning gap. Research has shown that kids not caught up academically with their peers by the third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school, Heuston said.

“Most states test [students] at third grade, find out some kids aren’t successful, and then want a solution, so they remediate at that point,” Heuston said. “We’ve always had the philosophy of start them early, start them well and avoid that.”

The UPSTART program is based on the preschool section of the Waterford Early Learning (WEL), a cloud-based adaptive program in which kids can learn at their own pace. WEL is now being used in more than 10,000 classrooms throughout the country and is increasingly utilized in more countries, Heuston said.

With UPSTART, parents have their four-year olds use the preschool program for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Outside evaluations indicate that kids who complete the UPSTART program will enter kindergarten ready to leave kindergarten, Heuston said.

The preschool section of WEL was officially adopted throughout Utah after state legislators in 2008 approached Waterford to help address the low levels of preschool attendance. After winning a request for proposal, Waterford used state funding to created UPSTART and offer it free to thousands of Utah residents.

Data from independent evaluations of UPSTART allowed Waterford to apply for the i3 grant, he said.

“Washington is looking for models that work,” Heuston later said. “We come with a complete solution that children can do quietly in a self-paced way. That’s really valuable.”

King said, “We’d love to see all kids served in high quality, center-based or district-based programs, and it would be great if kids also had access to really strong technology-based learning experiences that further supplemented [their education].”