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Straight Up Conversation: Waterford.org CEO Benjamin Heuston

Benjamin Heuston is the CEO of the nonprofit Waterford.org, which provides a publicly funded, home-based online kindergarten readiness program to 15,000 children in Utah annually. Before becoming CEO in 2016, he spent 13 years as Waterford's COO. I recently talked with Benj about Waterford's work to bring online personalized learning to Utah preschoolers, and here's what he said.

Rick Hess: Benj, so what exactly does Waterford.org do?

Benj Heuston: Waterford works directly with families and their children to help them get ready for school. We've created a unique program that trains and supports parents so they can better engage with their children, while also providing technology and learning software that the children can use on their own. In particular, our online preschool program now provides personalized learning to 15,000 students in the state of Utah, where the program is publicly funded.

Rick: What does "personalized learning" mean here? What's the curriculum and what knowledge and skills are kids learning?

Benj: The cornerstone for us has always been literacy, although we also have math and science that the children can work on after they've done their literacy. Working with young children means that we're primarily focused on basic skills and enrichment, although the program customizes to each child's level so there could be a pretty broad range of what they're working on.

Rick: Who are the students and families you're serving?

Benj: This program is targeted at children in the year before they enter kindergarten, which means they're most often 4 years old. Our goal is to help everyone, but it often skews toward the families that are the most vulnerable. This could be families who are in poverty but also refugees, migrants, rural, homeless, English-language learners, children on the autism spectrum or who are dyslexic, and so on. While their backgrounds might be diverse, parents are almost universally concerned about helping their children be successful in life, and there is a strong belief that education is synonymous with opportunity.

Rick: How do you make sure these families actually use the programming? Or is it really up to parents?

Benj: The program is opt-in, so everyone who's in the program is only there because they want to be. The central requirement for being part of the program is being willing to ensure that the child uses the software 15 minutes a day, five days a week. In order to help the parents keep on track, we provide reports and reminders, but we also proactively reach out on a regular basis to help them establish effective routines or to help clear any roadblocks they might be running into.

Rick: What kind of results have you seen? Have there been any studies of your efforts?

Benj: We've seen tremendous results. Children who use the program are not just mastering the basic preliteracy skills, but often show mastery of mid- to late-kindergarten reading concepts. Perhaps even more importantly, these advantages are not fading out—the state of Utah found that these children are still ahead of their peers in 4th grade in reading, math and science. Parents have been extremely supportive of the program, not just in giving us positive marks on paper but in referring friends and family at over a 99 percent rate. We have some mothers signing their kids up for the program at birth—or four years early. In addition to the results that the outside evaluator reports on every year, we have been awarded over $25 million of the most rigorous competitive federal research grants; Investing in Innovation [i3] and Education Innovation and Research [EIR] are grants funding random controlled trials of the project. Investing in Innovation confirmed, through the use of an independent evaluation of literacy by the Evaluation and Training Institute, that the reading instruction yielded meaningful gains for participants. We are currently being funded through the EIR grant to replicate the results by way of random control trials in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Kindergarten teachers tell us that they can tell which students participated in the project—those children are confident and competent and have learned how to do hard things and focus.

Rick: How are you getting results like this from a program that only requires 15 minutes a day?

Benj: Our view of learning is that it is a lot more like dieting and exercise than anything else: A little bit every day really adds up. Everyone knows that children are wired to learn, and they do a great job of learning things that are appropriately presented to them. By using the latest research and constantly iterating, we do our best to provide an ideal curriculum. The software then personalizes that curriculum by ensuring that the child is working at the right level and in the right sequence so that they can be successful. And I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that we'd never get there without the support and encouragement that parents provide their children on a daily basis—it really does take a village!

Rick: Obviously, young children need personal interaction from all kinds of people to build complex interpersonal skills. Could your program dissuade parents from seeking out those kind of interactions in traditional preschools or elsewhere?

Benj: This program is just a very small part of a child's day—they have 23 hours and 45 minutes left to do everything else! In many ways, I see us as the essential vitamins and minerals that help children develop properly. Part of our parent training and support is to help parents engage more deeply and authentically with their children on a regular basis, so I actually think we might be more of a boon in this area than you might think. The most recent study of kindergarten readiness in Utah, in September 2018, found that children from our program scored identically in terms of social-emotional learning to children who attended both public and private high-quality preschools, so I think there are a number of ways to get at this.

Rick: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children have less than one hour of screen time per day. Your program is supposed to take 15 minutes—but is there a risk that you're serving as a gateway drug or cause for concern?

Benj: There's always a risk of unintended consequences, but I actually think that we're a supportive environment for children who might struggle with any sort of addictive behavior in this area. We proactively reach out to families to ensure not just that there's enough time on the program, but also that there's not too much—it's all about getting the right amount at the right time. If we see children struggling with overusage, we counsel with parents on strategies for helping their children change that behavior. Knowing that technology is an almost inescapable part of modern life and has much to contribute if used properly, the argument could be made that it would be best to help children learn to use it appropriately early in life—and the home is the perfect setting for that.

Rick: What if the home doesn't have a computer or reliable internet connection?

Benj: We provide a computer and a robust internet connection to families who cannot afford them. We don't want the digital divide to become an educational divide. By the way, this can sometimes be quite a heavy lift—we've had to install solar panels and bring in satellite internet to reach some families, but it's worth it just knowing that we're giving every child an opportunity.

Rick: On that note, how does the program cost work? How do your costs compare with other preschool programs?

Benj: The program costs are paid for by the state. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to a program like this, and Utah is not a small state—one of our counties covers more land than the state of Massachusetts but has only 226 4-year-olds; another is the size of Rhode Island and has 14. Also, this is a parent choice model, which means that we need to individually find, inform, sign up, train, and support over 15,000 families each year, in addition to providing computers and internet for those that need them. On average, our cost is about a quarter of more traditional center-based models.

Rick: Where is this headed—where do you expect your efforts to be at five years out?

Benj: We are actively working in well over a dozen states now to confirm that the program can be as effective there as it is here in Utah. Early indications are very positive, and the dream would be to be able to report in a few years that parents who are interested in partnering with Waterford to prepare their children for school will be able to do so, regardless of where they live.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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