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A Mississippi mom encourages her daughter as she completes a session on the kindergarten readiness program, Waterford Upstart. Thousands of Mississippi children will have access to the software this summer as part of an effort to support incoming kindergarteners during the coronavirus pandemic.Photo: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

A growing body of research shows that children who start kindergarten without a firm grasp of the basics are more vulnerable to poor academic outcomes in later grades. That’s often the case in Mississippi, where nearly two-thirds of the state’s 5-year-olds were not ready to enter kindergarten this year.

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Now, early learning advocates are even more worried about the state’s youngest learners. Before the pandemic resulted in widespread school closures, nearly half of the state’s 4-year-olds likely weren’t attending preschool at all. And just 34 percent attended a public preschool or a Head Start center. With all schools closed through the end of the year and most Head Start centers shuttered too, even fewer 4-year-olds are likely to arrive at school with adequate preparation next school year.

Before the pandemic, 34 percent of Mississippi’s 4-year-olds attended a public preschool or a Head Start center

A Utah-based nonprofit is expanding its online kindergarten-readiness program to families across Mississippi and eight other states in an effort to fill the gap. Last year, 700 Mississippi kids logged onto the online curriculum, Waterford Upstart, created by Waterford.org. This summer, the number will grow to 2,500 children in Mississippi, and 15,000 rising kindergarteners nationally.

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The program has been met with skepticism from experts worried about excessive screen time for young children, but has been praised by local educators who say it has improved students’ school readiness.

For at least 15 minutes per day, kids — ideally with adult supervision — work through online lessons focusing on early literacy, numerical and science skills. Waterford.org also provides families with laptops and internet service, helping reduce the digital divide that would have prevented many low-income kids from logging on.

Waterford.org will direct $9 million toward the project. Several philanthropic organizations, including the Overdeck Family Foundation and The Valhalla Charitable Foundation, are providing additional financial backing. As of Monday, nearly 700 families had signed up to participate, according to LaTasha Hadley, vice president for state education partnerships for Waterford.org. Families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (an income no higher than $52,400 for a family of four) qualify to sign up.

“Children really need to have as much support during this interim as they can get.”

Nita Norphlet-Thompson, executive director of the Mississippi Head Start Association, on the use of online kindergarten-readiness programs

The Mississippi Head Start Association, already a current partner of Waterford.org, has encouraged families to look into the kindergarten readiness program. Several Head Start sites in Mississippi have already shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, while others are set to close this month for the summer.

“Children really need to have as much support during this interim as they can get,” said Nita Norphlet-Thompson, executive director of the Mississippi Head Start Association.

Waterford.org initially launched a pilot program in Mississippi in 2017. Hadley said the goal for this summer’s initiative is for children to log on for at least 25 minutes per day, five days a week from June to August. The software also offers instructions in Spanish to support English language learners.

Related: Mississippi’s high-quality pre-K program may ramp up to serve more kids

Early education experts argue that some of the most beneficial aspects of preschool, such as learning to share and socializing with peers, can’t be replicated online. And researchers have expressed concern that racking up too much screen time can be bad for kids. (Hadley said the program’s usage guidelines are in line with what’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Families are also assigned a coach who will reach out to parents or caregivers if kids stay online for an extended amount of time).

But Adrian Hammitte, a superintendent in one of the Magnolia State’s high-needs school districts, said results from the first few years of the program have been promising, showing gains in students’ kindergarten readiness. An internal program evaluation by Waterford.org found that 78 percent of participants in Mississippi during the 2018-19 school year met or exceeded the program’s target for “kindergarten beginning” skills, meaning they had achieved skills such as letter recognition.

Hammitte, who is superintendent in the Jefferson County School District, is optimistic that the program will help curtail at least some of the learning loss that kids often experience during summertime.

Nearly two-thirds of Mississippi’s 5-year-olds were not ready to enter kindergarten this year.

The rural district has only one public preschool classroom. The majority of incoming kindergartners attend Head Start. Hammitte, a former elementary teacher who is now in his first year as superintendent, said he noticed that kids who participated in Waterford Upstart arrived with strong early literacy skills.

As in most school districts, kindergarteners in Jefferson County take a computerized test at the start of the year to identify which children are struggling with foundational reading skills like recognizing letters of the alphabet. Hammitte said Waterford Upstart participants often posted stronger scores than children who were not enrolled in the program.

He also sees an upside to more children gaining access to technology devices like laptops. Waterford provides free devices and internet service for qualifying families to access the program. Almost a third of all homes in the county lack broadband access. And though several Mississippi districts have rushed to make large purchase orders for Chromebooks and hotspots, Hammitte’s district hasn’t been able to ensure that each student has access to a device.

“It takes a big burden off the district,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Friday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about kindergarten readiness was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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