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Kindergarten-Prep Program Upstart Is Free For Families, But Barriers Still Exist

A close-up  photo of a school child holding a pencil in their hand and practicing letters.
Aleksandra Nigmatulina
24,527 kids in Utah use Upstart to prepare for kindergarten, according to data.

The Utah-based, kindergarten-prep program, Upstart, is being offered to every kid who registers for free.

Upstart is primarily an online reading program, but it also has lessons in math, science and emotional development.

Kim Fischer, spokesperson for Waterford which runs the program, said it has been offered to Utah families for free in the past through state funding, but there is not always enough to cover every eligible student.

“This year, despite what the state gives us, if we go over that number, we're going to pull from philanthropic funds to make sure that we can reach as many four-year-olds as we can,” Fischer said.

Children currently in kindergarten will also be able to keep using the program, she said, whereas in the past it was only available to pre-K kids.

The Utah State Board of Education and state lawmakers have been proponents of Upstart. A study from USBE found students who used the program had better outcomes than those who didn’t. State lawmakers also appropriated $9 million during the 2021 Legislative session in both one-time and ongoing money to support it.

“The success of the program is, I don’t know if astounding is too strong of a word,” Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said in a Education Interim Committee meeting in May. “Based on the studies that are being done … we wanted to see how students are performing all the way through 3rd grade to see if the gains that they were making are the gains we thought they would make [and] would stick. And they definitely are.”

Jeremy Reynoso, a kindergarten teacher in the Salt Lake City School district, said pre-k education can go a long way in helping students develop foundational skills that will set them up for academic success later in life.

Kindergartners learn the alphabet, how to count and break down words by sounds. He said students should enter first grade knowing how to write basic sentences and knowing some addition and subtraction.

“It’s such a huge step,” Reynoso said. ”It actually takes quite a long time for some of them to get, ‘Why are we quantifying things? What's the purpose of that?’ It’s cool to see when you have parents who have been working on those types of things before they get to kindergarten, many of them are already close to where they need to be by the end of the year.”

Without those skills – and without parent support — kids start at a disadvantage, he said, which can have compounding effects as they get older. Because of the disruptions over the last two school years due to the pandemic, he said more of his students have come in and left at lower reading and math levels.

That’s where a program like Upstart could be helpful, he said.

More and more kids use the program each year. In Utah, it’s grown from 6,639 kids in the 2015-16 school year to more than 24,000 this year, according to state and Waterford data. But it still doesn’t reach every eligible student.

Reynoso said typically only a handful of his students come in each year having used Upstart. The kids who do are usually those whose parents have the time and financial resources to be able to closely monitor their child’s education, but the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges many families face.

“It's a lot more structural than we have any power to affect,” he said. “Because we see that people are working so hard right now. People lost a lot of jobs. And I think that disproportionately affected our [school] community.”

Fischer said parent buy-in has been one of the major challenges in helping kids get the most out of the program. For families who did use it, more were asking the on-call coaches about how to access basic necessities, such as paying their bills online or finding resources in the community.

“Our family coaches definitely felt a little more like, you know, counselors,” she said. “But that was OK. It was a lifeline for some of these families that needed someone to talk to.”

Reynoso said one positive thing to come out of the pandemic, however, was increased communication between schools and families. He said he hopes that kind of involvement will continue to grow.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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