Fifteen minutes a day, five days a week–no, it’s not the latest workout routine; it’s how Utah is preparing at-risk preschoolers for kindergarten.

In 2012, the Utah State Legislature recognized the importance of closing the academic achievement gap between wealthy students and those below the poverty line, and specifically wanted to find a way to close the gap before it even started.

As a result, the state Legislature passed a bill creating an early intervention program to help at-risk preschoolers. After looking at multiple programs and technologies, Utah selected UPSTART, from Waterford Institute, a nonprofit research center that creates personalized cloud-based instruction. UPSTART is an in-home, technology-delivered kindergarten readiness program that gives preschoolers individualized reading, math, and science instruction with a specific focus on reading. The program, which is publicly funded and costs the state roughly $800 per student, uses games and songs to teach children skills they will need in kindergarten. It uses large, child-friendly buttons, clear directions, and individualized support to enable progress. Each child moves through a personalized learning path, designed to meet his or her skills and needs. The software assesses progress at key milestones to determine what type of instruction each child will receive.

A recent report from Utah found that children who use the UPSTART program for one year at the preschool level see lasting positive results on standardized tests. “UPSTART students continually outperformed state averages in DIBELS and SAGE (standardized) testing in grades first through fourth,” according to the report, which was prepared by the Utah State Office of Education.

“UPSTART is a game changer for any school, district, or state trying to improve education outcomes and close early learning gaps,” said Utah State Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. “Preschoolers who use it are learning at two to three times the pace of their peers, regardless of socioeconomic status. The State of Utah has doubled funding due to its proven ability to improve academic scores, while keeping costs low and reaching children most in need.”

After registering for the program, parents undergo training over the summer and must commit to using the program 15 minutes a day, five days a week with their children. Additionally, since the program targets children below the poverty line, parents can also ask for a free computer and free Internet access so their child can participate. Additionally, throughout the year parents have access to a Personal Care Representative who monitors their child’s progress. Families also have access to live help by phone or email six days per week. The program sends a weekly email with program info, off-line learning activity suggestions, and a usage report to each family. As an accountability check, families are contacted if their child’s usage falls below guidelines.

Utah has served nearly 20,000 students with UPSTART and is continuing to grow the program. Other states are also taking note of Utah’s success. In November 2015, Idaho launched a pilot program in Carmen County, Cassia County, and Idaho Falls. Fifty-four preschoolers participated in the pilot, which was funded by the Waterford Institute. The Idaho Legislature will use the results of the pilot to determine if it will fund further UPSTART programs.

In 2015, Waterford Institute also funded a six-month pilot program in South Carolina for 70 preschoolers and the South Carolina Legislature is currently considering additional programs. Later this summer a new pilot program will begin in Indiana.

Preschool education is essential for a child’s academic development, but it can be cost-prohibitive for many parents. Online programs, like UPSTART, could be the answer to ensuring students are ready for kindergarten. While Utah has seen great success with UPSTART, it remains to be seen whether the program will be a nationwide success.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs