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Experiment Could Change the Way Rural America Does Early Education

November 27, 2017
Carolyn Phenicie
The 74

Garfield County, Utah, is about 5,200 square miles, and has just about as many people.

Among its nine schools is Escalante School, which enrolls roughly 75 children from kindergarten through sixth grade. This year, eight of its future students are enrolled in Upstart, an online personalized learning preschool program that children complete from home.

“When we talk about the differences between rural and urban low-income families, rural low-income families just may not have as many opportunities or resources available to them, just because of the area that they live in,” Melinda Dalton, a coordinator with Upstart, told The 74. Dalton is a liaison between Waterford, the nonprofit technology and research firm that runs Upstart, and two rural school districts in Utah.

Upstart launched in Utah in 2009 as a low-cost option to expand preschool in a state that didn’t have a state-funded program. Since then, it has been a particular boon for the state’s rural areas. About 30,000 Utah children have gone through the program over the past eight years, with about 14,150 participating this school year. It has also now spread to seven other states, where 700 early learners are enrolled.

State and federal policymakers are increasingly recognizing the value of early education, especially in keeping the achievement gap more at bay for disadvantaged children before they enter kindergarten. Preschool programs teach younger children early literacy and math skills alongside essential social-emotional skills. About 1.5 million 3- and 4-year-olds were served in state-funded preschool programs in the 2015–16 school year, more than double the number enrolled in such programs in 2002, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The Upstart program prioritizes low-income children, English language learners, and children who live in rural areas. After several years of waiting lists, which climbed to more than 1,700 families two years ago, Utah legislators authorized more funding. The program received $11.5 million this year. Last year the list was smaller and only had children from higher-income families, said Claudia Miner, vice president of development at Waterford.

Families agree to use the program 15 minutes a day, five days a week for literacy. There are also science and math options for students who want to spend more time with the program. Program administrators will provide laptops and internet services to participating families that don’t have them.

Other members of the family are free to use the software as well, Miner said.

“We allow the family to put additional children on the program. Everybody has his or her own individualized learning path. We encourage that,” Miner said, adding that some parents learning English set up their own accounts to get additional language exposure.