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In this file photo, a child at a Jackson-area child care center participates in a lesson about money. Officials from UPSTART, an online kindergarten readiness program, say their home-based program can compliment other early childhood programs and better prepare kids for school. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

A free online preschool pilot program is wrapping up in Mississippi, and program officials say early results are promising, indicating the new offering may boost kindergarten readiness.

The pilot is run through the non-profit Waterford Institute, which launched the first online preschool offering in Utah in 2009. The program, UPSTART, received an $11.5 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 to expand its program to Utah’s rural children. The program currently serves nearly 30 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, according to program officials. Since then, with a mix of local and private funding, UPSTART has expanded its online, home-based kindergarten readiness programs to kids in Idaho, South Carolina, Ohio, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi.

UPSTART provides families computers and Internet, if needed, as well as an online curriculum with daily reading lessons, math and science instruction and suggested at-home activities that complement the curriculum. Parents receive in-person training, support administering the curriculum, and frequent calls from UPSTART officials to check in.

Claudia Miner, vice president of development at the Waterford Institute, which runs UPSTART, said the online program works well either as a stand-alone kindergarten readiness program, or as a complement to another form of early childhood education that has a larger social component, like Head Start or daycare. “If [kids] can be in Head Start getting all those benefits during the day, and do this in the evening to get an academic component, that to me is a win-win,” Miner said. “We’re not here to replace anything; we’re here to provide additional access and to respond to parent choice.”

This year, 156 kids from Jackson, Fayette, and Yazoo City participated in the pilot program. Miner said 48 of those students are mastering content at a first-grade level in the program. Miner said another metric of success is that students are using the program for 75 minutes a week on average. “We know if they’re using it, they’re going to succeed.”

The program plans to collect more data in the next few weeks as students complete the remaining activities and assessments. Miner says the goal is to see UPSTART reach more Mississippi students in the future, especially kids in rural areas where there may not be many options for early childhood education.

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  1. There are a number of reasons to reconsider using computers with preschoolers:

    1. Finland and other countries with high student achievement do not offer young children computers at all. Instead, they rely on developmentally appropriate activities like telling stories, playing outdoors, experimenting with real objects, and playing with others.

    2. Brain science shows screen time is especially unhealthy for young children, leading to problems with attention and mood. (Psychology Today, et al) This is a risky experiment.

    3. Computer skills like pressing buttons and swiping can be learned later but can actually interfere with a young child’s developing sense of how the world works.

    4. The money would be better spent on home visits from a child therapist or social worker.

    While some mean well in supporting these programs, others simply want to make a buck or throw the poor a bone – all without independent research backing their claims.

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