RALEIGH — In North Carolina, at-risk 4-year-olds unable to attend a brick-and-mortar pre-K may soon get a chance to attend virtual preschool.
Some lawmakers are looking to enact the pilot program for low-income families whose children are missing out on a pre-K education. At the behest of the state, Waterford.org, a Utah-based early learning nonprofit, would administer the program, Waterford UpStart.
The program began in Utah about 10 years ago after the Pew Research Center informed the state it was one of the few in the country without a state-funded pre-K program. Former Utah state Sen. Howard Stephenson, a Republican, led the charge to find a pre-K program that would be a good fit for a state with many rural families. Stephenson reached out to Waterford to help devise an at-home program to help prepare 4- and 5-year-olds for kindergarten. Waterford UPSTART has now spread to at least 15 states.
The kindergarten readiness program features daily, 15-minute online lessons in, for example, reading, math, and science. Lessons involve songs and games to help children learn.
Kim Fischer, public relations manager at Waterford.org, said parental involvement is key to the program’s success.
“Over the years, we have done data and research to figure out what works best, and what works best is engaging the parents in the process and teaching them to become their child’s first teacher,” Fischer said.
The lesson isn’t done just because the 15 minutes of screen time are up, Fischer said. Parents are encouraged to continue the lesson by doing activities in the home and by adding a personal element to early learning. Learning coaches will be available for parents to help teach their children; they also help to ensure parents are keeping up with the program.
A preliminary test is done to gauge a child’s level before he begins Waterford UpStart. Tests are also done midway through the process and at the end of it.
“The program is adaptive,” Fischer said. “A child will never be told they’re wrong while working on the program, but if they miss something they will just be asked to click again until they figure it out.”
Fischer said the software picks up on a child’s struggles and returns to the subject a few more times.
“We are looking to help rural families or families that didn’t have another pre-K option, whether it’s because of monetary restrictions, transportation, or parent choice,” Fischer said. “We are looking to help the kids who don’t have another option.”
Under a provision in the proposed N.C. House budget plan, at-risk 4-year-olds from low-income families would be eligible to participate in the three-year pilot program using Waterford UpStart.
N.C. Pre-K, the state’s preschool program for at-risk children, serves more than 29,000 4-year-olds, but a substantial waitlist keeps thousands more without a preschool education.
The virtual early learning pilot program is some lawmakers’ answer to the waitlist. Spearheaded by Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, the pilot program aims to prevent low-income students unable to attend preschool from falling behind when they start kindergarten. The state would provide computers and home internet access for those eligible for the program.
Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said a pilot program is a reasonable place to start.
“It will allow state officials to determine if there is sufficient parental demand for virtual preschool and whether there are positive and persistent student achievement effects,” Stoops said. “I think all options for delivering preschool content to at-risk children should be on the table.”
Critics of the pilot program say it doesn’t do enough to address the issue of long waitlists.
“This year’s proposed House budget does not expand legitimate pre-K beyond what had already been signed into law in past sessions,” Justin Parmenter, an advisory board member of Public Schools First N.C. and Red 4 Ed N.C, wrote in a Charlotte Observer op-ed. “That funding does provide additional pre-K slots, but still comes up well short of universal access.”
Last year, a letter signed by more than 100 early education experts, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Defending the Early Years project, outlined concerns with virtual kindergarten-readiness programs.
“[A]n increasing number of Silicon Valley companies with names like ‘K12 Inc.’ and ‘CHALK’ are selling families and policymakers the idea that kindergarten readiness can be transmitted through a screen,” the letter reads. “What these companies offer is not preschool, but a marketing scheme designed to sell a virtual facsimile of real preschool.”
Waterford.org says it’s equally concerned about excess screen time for young children, Fischer said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than an hour a day of screentime for 4- and 5-year-olds. Fischer said Waterford UpStart’s 15-minute lessons fall within those guidelines.
“A part of our program is explaining to parents the importance of educational versus entertainment for screen time,” Fischer said. “Children need to be active and playing, but the software is just a very small part of the overall project of what we are doing.”