How rural North Dakota scales online early learning

North Dakota state superintendent says lifelong academic success relies on early learning
By: | Issue: March 2020
February 12, 2020
Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction, is scaling online preschool in rural communities.Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction, is scaling online preschool in rural communities.

In North Dakota, a state that doesn’t fund preschool, the phrase “You don’t have to recover from a good start” drives North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction, Kirsten Baesler, as she and her team work to expand online learning to rural communities.

Baesler’s agency recently brought in online kindergarten readiness program Waterford UPSTART, which provides free computers and broadband access to learners.

Students and a family member are asked to spend 15 minutes, five days a week, working on the company’s early literacy curriculum.

It also provides mentors who check in with children regularly and offers coaching for parents, who are encouraged to set a regular schedule for working on the curriculum and to teach kids about K-12 basics, such as waiting in line, cleaning up after themselves and playing well with friends, Baesler says.

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About 400 of North Dakota’s approximately 10,000 4-year-olds will enroll this year. Baesler spoke to District Administration about how the program will get off the ground and the importance of families helping to prepare children academically and emotionally for kindergarten.

What’s the outlook for offering early childhood education in North Dakota?

We have a large geographic area, with districts that have 20,000 students and some, with as few as eight—and 90 of those districts are classified as isolated. When you think about bringing kindergarten readiness programs to scale across the state, it’s a challenge when so many districts are that rural, remote and isolated.

But we want those rural zero-to-5-years-olds to have the same opportunities as children living in large districts. A benefit in North Dakota is that we are not a tech desert.

All of our public schools have a minimum of 100GB connectivity—and last summer North Dakota made history by connecting our very last farmhouse with high-speed internet. Every home, every farmhouse, now has access to broadband connectivity.

We’re also making a significant effort in North Dakota to increase family engagement, not only in getting kids academically ready for kindergarten but in helping families understand those social-emotional skills.

Some people say an online preschool is basically screen time and not appropriate for young children. What do you say to them?

We wholeheartedly agree that kids shouldn’t be in front of devices all the time. But Waterford UPSTART limits instruction to 15 minutes a day and it must occur with a family member.

It isn’t simply putting a 4-year-old in front of a device and leaving them to their own means to interact with a computer. They will be working on letter sounds, identifying phonemes, pairing letters with sounds and writing letters—the basic, fundamental things that happen for kindergarten readiness. 

And the fact that Waterford UPSTART supplies all the materials is huge. If families can’t afford a high-speed broadband connection, those costs are also covered. So, it’s really no cost to our families—we want to make sure we’re helping families be their child’s best and most influential first teacher. 

You’re starting with about 400 students. Are you already thinking about how to scale the program? 

Yes, because demand is going to increase. For one, our migrant and refugee populations are growing.

We are a small state agency—only 88 team members—so we pride ourselves on our partnerships. We’re already working with the Department of Human Services to provide evidence of family engagement and kindergarten readiness.

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So, when our state legislators convene again, we can showcase the impact and provide them with an understanding of how they can support further investment. 

We have about 10,000 four-year-olds in North Dakota. We’ll make an impact on about 400 but we’ll have another 9,000 who are going to be left unserved. 

How are you letting everyone know about the program?

With our partners in the Department of Human Services and childcare providers, we are getting the word out to families in childcare centers, child nutrition programs, summer meal programs and breakfast and lunch programs across the state. We’ll try to canvass anyone in the state who works with 4-year-olds. 

Why are preschool and the early grades so crucial? 

We spend billions of dollars helping K-12 students in credit recovery and remediation. You don’t have to spend those dollars and you never have to recover when everybody has a good start in kindergarten. Students can spend time learning new things rather than having to catch up.

As educators, we’ve always had gut feelings and hunches, but with the advance of technology, we’re able to actually see what’s going on in a child’s brain when they’re being exposed to early learning and interacting with family members—their brains are just firing with energy. 

So many neural connections are being made in the early years of a child’s life. Nurturing those neural connections and synapses is so important for future academic success and for becoming a whole being, a person, an individual.

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Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.

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