Educational Equality With Technology As The Conduit: The Story Of Waterford UPSTART

“UPSTART changes lives. It puts children on a path to success very early on, the confidence they get from participation in the program is unbelievable.”

This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine. For the print version, subscribe to Utah Business Magazine and you will automatically be sent a quarterly copy of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

In an ideal world, kindergarten represents a fresh start. Kids enter on a level playing field, ready to learn the basics — math, reading, science — that will propel them to professional adulthood. A successful foundation for lifelong learning is laid early and each child is given the chance to do so, regardless of background or upbringing. Schools welcome, teach, and equip every student that comes through the doors: opportunity for all.

Unfortunately this is not an ideal world and for many kids entering kindergarten, the playing field is anything but level. Not every child has the chance to learn basic concepts that are vital before entering kindergarten, foundational principles of math, science, and language arts that prepare them for a successful school career. These kids enter kindergarten with strikes already against them, lagging behind classmates before they’ve even had an opportunity to prove otherwise. In many cases, this gap is maintained throughout a student’s career, circling back to the root problem — the possibility of pre-kindergarten learning just didn’t exist.

The Waterford UPSTART program was started 10 years ago in response to this, focused on creating a way to level the playing field for all children entering kindergarten.

“With UPSTART, we’re working to overcome that day one achievement gap,” said Anne Brown, VP of Education and Business Development at the Waterford Institute. “How do we power education at home and then into the classroom?”

Before we can understand the UPSTART program, we must understand the Waterford Institute, founded in 1976 by a man named Dustin Heuston who sought to solve this achievement gap among students— in Brown’s words, “He saw technology as the conduit to equity in education.”

This came in the form of a variety of software programs designed to stimulate young minds, first concentrating on fourth graders before realizing that was too late. To really make a difference, pre-kindergarten learning was necessary.

The Waterford UPSTART program was spun out of this mindset in 2008 after a discussion with Utah State Senators. The conversation centered on a learning program designed to support kids before they even entered school. The consensus was many resources existed for kids once they entered school but for those in need of early-stage learning opportunities, options were limited.

The pilot program was introduced in Utah and in year one, 1,500 kids participated.

“The UPSTART program is a state-sponsored kindergarten readiness program that provides reading, math, and science at home,” said Issac Troyo, Director of Waterford UPSTART. “It’s convenient, easy-to-use, and can be incorporated at any time. It’s a great way to individualize instruction and ensure children start school ready to learn. This program does everything to get your children kindergarten ready. The best part is, it’s games, songs, stories, engaging activities that children like using. They think they’re just playing games but really they are getting everything they need for a successful kindergarten start.”

UPSTART is built on the idea of educational equality. The cost of the program is subsidized by the state, making it free for any willing participants — this year, UPSTART will provide learning resources to 15,000 of Utah’s children. Open enrollment is available online.

Students are pre-assessed, assigned a personal care representative, and provided with computer and internet if needed. The program takes 15 minutes per day, 5 days per week, and engages in a way that’s enjoyable for kids. UPSTART is aligned with state standards in language arts, math, and science, ensuring that participants will be prepared for kindergarten in a way they couldn’t be without it. After completion, parents are asked for their input via survey — feedback has been excellent.

“Our results in the survey have been phenomenal, 99% of parents say they would recommend UPSTART to a friend, 99% of parents say it helped prepare their students for kindergarten,” said Brown. “The widespread support of this has been amazing.”

UPSTART has begun expanding outside of Utah, spreading into states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Indiana. Waterford has 10 years of data that shows the UPSTART program is transformative for children, taking kids that (in the past) have entered school with no literary basis whatsoever and giving them individualized instruction for reading, math, and science. Educational equality, with technology as the conduit.

“UPSTART changes lives,” said Troyo. “It puts children on a path to success very early on, the confidence they get from participation in the program is unbelievable.”

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