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Utah Expands Support for Online Preschool Education Program

The Utah legislature recently approved an additional $1 million to fund UPSTART, a computer-based preschool program aimed at 4-year-olds that has also received funding from the U.S. Department of Education as an Investing in Innovation project. 

Utah originally provided about $8 million for the program in 2008 as a 5-year pilot program. (The name comes from "Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow.") The Sandy, Utah-based Waterford Institute, which created the program, used the early results in its successful application to expand access to UPSTART for young children living in rural parts of the state. The i3 "validation" grant, made in 2013, was for $11.5 million. As a part of the federal funding project, families were provided not only the UPSTART software, but computers and Internet access if they needed it. 

In spring 2014, Utah removed the pilot status from the program and funded it for an additional $25 million over 5 years. The additional $1 million, which was approved in March, will help maintain UPSTART in the rural school districts now that the federal funding has ended. 

In all, about 6,000 children, or 15 percent of Utah's 4-year-olds, are expected to enroll in UPSTART in 2015-16 and use the software for at least 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Waterford has also started a small program in South Carolina, where 70 preschoolers are using the software. 

For a taste of some of the resources that UPSTART offers, enjoy this catchy song about the concept of zero, which prepares children for later lessons about numbers:  

Utah is not often thought of as an early-education leader in the same way as places like Georgia or the District of Columbia. Georgia was the first state to offer free universal pre-K to all 4-year-olds back in 1995; D.C. stands out for providing free early education to 3-year-olds as well.

But the state has chosen to invest in early education in some interesting ways. For example, last year Utah governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed a bill that allows for a public-private funding model for early education. The state will take loans from private investors to pay for preschool, and it only has to pay the loans back if it realizes savings from having to provide costly remediation down the road. The Granite district in Salt Lake City is already pioneering that program.

The UPSTART program is another venture, and one that is potentially more palatable to some families in the state, said J. Stuart Adams, a Republican member of the state Senate and a leader in getting more money for UPSTART.

"There's a group of very conservative individuals and they're not really keen on pre-K because they feel like children should be at home with their families. The beauty of UPSTART in a rural or urban setting, is that it is parentally supervised," Mr. Adams said in an interview. 

For another group of families, UPSTART is a good option because getting to a traditional school-based preschool would require extensive travel time. Ben Dalton, the superintendent of the 940-student Garfield district in Panguitch, leads one of those sparsely populated but huge districts. To travel to each of the nine schools in his southern Utah district would take about two days of driving, he said. Two of the district's K-6 schools each have one teacher. 

Garfield does run two traditional school-based preschool programs that enroll a total of 40 students. Of the remaining 4-year-olds who can't get to a preschool program, 35 of 44 are signed up for UPSTART. Dalton said he's expecting to see a decrease in the number of children starting kindergarten who need supplementary education.

The distance between families hasn't prevented news about the program from spreading, Dalton said. "The word of mouth is that it's very successful and free, and it will help your student enter at grade level," he said.


Related stories:

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