BILLINGS — A new school year is on the horizon, and there’s still plenty of uncertainty about what in-person classes will look like. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the rise in online learning, and one company is trying to prepare the next generation of students, especially in the most remote areas.
“We’re in the mountains of Wyoming, but we have good WiFi, and so we can get access to a lot online," said Larisa Barth.
Barth wasn’t really considering preschool for 4-year-old son Judah. They live in the Bighorn mountains outside Sheridan, so an in-person center isn’t really an option. But one day she saw a Facebook post about Waterford Upstart - a new online pre-K program targeted at families just like hers.
“It was just so cool to have a program that didn’t cost us anything, but I at least felt it was a really valuable curriculum and enrichment program," Barth said.
The Utah-based non-profit began Upstart 13 years ago. The state’s legislature wanted to find a way to serve the most rural families and found the two most important factors were cost and access. Not only is the curriculum free, but the tools are as well.
“Every single family gets a computer, and they get to keep that computer - they don’t have to worry about sending it back," said Kim Fischer, Waterford's Vice President of Communication. "If you need internet access, we provide that as well.”
Montana is acutely aware of that need. The state ranks 46th in the nation in broadband access, according to the FCC. Numbers are especially bad on tribal lands, where just two-thirds of residents are connected.
After eye-opening early results, Waterford received a federal EIR grant - Education, Innovation, Research - to expand into five more states in the West, including Montana and Wyoming.
The program is structured like a typical school year from late August to a May graduation.
“Children utilize our program for 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week," Fischer said. "The program is adaptive, so it figures out where the child is having difficulties. It hones in on that until the child masters it.”
“It was easy, until we got it harder," Barth's son Judah said when asked about his early experience last year.
The program wasn't challenging enough for Judah at first, so Larisa contacted her personal Waterford coach who set up another assessment.
“Then the next time he logged in, it was much more challenging," Barth said. "At first, I was like, ‘Is there going to work for us?’ But I’m glad we had that liaison so I contacted them right away, and they told me the Waterford program goes up through 2nd grade, so even if you have a child that’s more advanced, at least there was an allotment for that.”
It’s hard to question the academic impact the program has. A Utah Department of Education report found Upstart students outperformed others on standardized tests from kindergarten through fourth grade.
But questions remain whether online learning is right for the age group. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children ages 2-5. And many others cite a lack of social and emotional behavior development that usually comes in a classroom setting, traits Waterford agree are key to future success.
“We also encourage families to work with their children offline - it truly is the secret sauce to this program," Fischer said. "On Fridays, they get a push notification about social/emotional growth - the conversations they can have with their children about their emotions, about how to deal with things, about how to respect the people around them.”
“That was really awesome - little ideas that are kind of like Pinterest crafts," Barth added. "Things that didn’t require me to do research.”
For the Barths - and many rural Americans - pre-K programs like Upstart are often the only option. According to the U.S. Department of Education, less than 50 percent of 3 and 4 year olds were enrolled in preschools over the last decade. Those who are often show a much greater literacy standard, which is Upstart’s main goal.
“Literacy is the foundation for all learning. If you can’t read, you are not able to learn math and science," Fischer said. "Children get to a point where they go from learning to read, and then they cross over where they begin reading to learn.”
“(Judah) started reading, and he just turned five," Barth said. "He’s never gone to preschool. I never said, ‘Here, it’s time to learn these letters and words,’ and yet he picked up on that just with 15 minutes a day, so I was super impressed with that.”
More and more people continue to be.
Upstart’s grant gives them space for 400 pre-K students from each state. As of this week, they still had over 200 slots available in Wyoming and over 300 in Montana. Again, they are focused on helping rural families, but all are encouraged to apply.