Online preschool intends to expand access

Waterford UPSTART founders say they don't want to replace traditional preschool
By: | Issue: September, 2019
August 2, 2019
A student and his family celebrate his graduation from a Waterford UPSTART online preschool course. The nonprofit partners with districts and other agencies to provide instruction to families who can’t access in-person programs.A student and his family celebrate his graduation from a Waterford UPSTART online preschool course. The nonprofit partners with districts and other agencies to provide instruction to families who can’t access in-person programs.

Can an online preschool learning program used at home be a viable substitute for traditional pre-K?

That’s the question being addressed by an online preschool service that is gaining users across the country. But the program, Waterford UPSTART, isn’t meant to replace traditional preschool, say its founders; it’s meant to provide a meaningful preschool experience for families who don’t have access to traditional preschool.

“We do not want to replace anything,” says Claudia Miner, executive director of Waterford.org, the Utah-based nonprofit that developed UPSTART. “Our goal is to serve children who do not have access to pre-K programs, and fill in the gaps in K-12 access.”

Waterford UPSTART partners with districts, local and state governments, and other agencies to enroll students and their families in online preschool. The program, which is expected to have 22,000 students by 2020, provides free computers and broadband access to families while they’re participating. Some districts and agencies have let families keep the computers after their children graduate, says Miner.

“In some cases, we’re the first computer in that family’s home,” she says.

Online preschool adds an alternative

Wichita Falls ISD in Texas signed on with Waterford UPSTART in 2017 to provide an online preschool option for families. Lack of transportation, work schedules, parents’ disabilities and other issues can prevent some children from attending the district’s preschool or Head Start, says Travis Armstrong, director of early learning. Sometimes, a family’s income is just above the threshold to qualify.


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“We may have had to tell them that they made $500 too much, and they’d walk out the door with their heads down,” Armstrong says. “Now I can say, ‘You have options. If you want to be enrolled, we’ll get you enrolled.’”

The program costs Wichita Falls ISD about $1,000 per student, which is covered by a community foundation.

Armstrong is launching a research project comparing kindergarten performance of Waterford UPSTART graduates to children who attended district preschool or Head Start. “We heard a lot of success stories from parents and positive comments from teachers that these kids are having success in kindergarten,” he says.

Developing online pedagogy

A criticism of online learning has been that students can’t develop the social-emotional skills that prepare them for elementary school. That’s why Waterford UPSTART provides some coaching for parents and one-on-one mentors who will check in with children regularly, says Benjamin Heuston, CEO of Waterford.org.

For instance, when parents set a schedule for using Waterford UPSTART at home, children learn to focus and calm themselves, which is beneficial when they get to kindergarten. Parents are also encouraged to teach students about K-12 basics, such as waiting in line and playing well with friends.


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Students are required to spend at least 15 minutes on the program, five days per week. The curriculum’s balanced literacy approach combines phonics and other techniques.

“We have a lot of art, animation and music,” Heuston says. “We have characters that children can build relationships with that we use for motivation and to demonstrate social-emotional skills.”


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