Waterford Upstart uses adaptive software to provide online early education support to four-year-olds. Since its inception in Utah in 2009, Waterford Upstart has grown to serve over 90,000 children across 28 states. I spoke with Dr. LaTasha Hadley, Waterford Upstart’s vice president of state partnerships, about the program and its work, especially in the face of the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Rick: So, what is Waterford Upstart?
LaTasha: Waterford Upstart is an in-home, technology-delivered school-readiness program that children use independently for 15 to 30 minutes each day, five days a week. The software itself presents a wide range of multimedia-based activities in an adaptive sequence tailored to each student’s individual placement and their individual rate of growth. Instructional strands include phonological awareness, comprehension and vocabulary, reading fluency, and language concepts. The end goal is to have each student ready for kindergarten. We also help families be better prepared to collaborate with the school staff once their student arrives at kindergarten by teaching them what their kids are supposed to know at that point.
Rick: Why offer a program like Waterford Upstart?
LaTasha: Research has shown us that children who come to school ready to learn are far less likely to drop out, have trouble with the law, or experience intergenerational poverty. Knowing that, the goal of Waterford Upstart is to ensure that every child, regardless of geography, socioeconomic status, or background, enjoys the success of arriving to their first classroom with the confidence to learn. Waterford Upstart is not intended to replace any early-childhood education or effort already in place. Instead, we seek to improve access to early-childhood education, particularly where access to transportation hinders access; where families choose not to send young children to site-based preschool; where English is not the primary household language; where children need an additional cognitive boost; where children are wait listed for site-based programs; or where children and their families face the “technology gap” because they have never had access to a computer.
Rick: How does signing up for Waterford Upstart work?
LaTasha: Families can go online or call to register their qualifying child or children—usually a four-year-old—for Waterford Upstart. Then, parents and guardians complete training on how to help their child be successful with Waterford Upstart, and children take a short preprogram assessment. Families who don’t have a computer are provided with one, and, if needed, families are provided with internet access for the duration of the program as well.
Rick: What does the program cost for families?
LaTasha: We offer every family a full scholarship, so there is no cost for families. The $2,000 cost per student is funded by generous philanthropic sponsors, state or local government, or federal grants in various places. Depending on the stipulations of any given funder, there may be an income limit to qualify to participate, but this is not always the case. For example, in Utah, where we’re funded by the state, there is no income restriction on participation. In contrast, in Indiana, which also spends state dollars to fund Waterford Upstart, qualifying families must have incomes no more than 137 percent of the federal poverty level.
Rick: How do you measure the efficacy of your offerings, and what does it mean for a child to successfully complete the program?
LaTasha: Our overall measure of success is that students and families are prepared to succeed in kindergarten, and Waterford Upstart actually measures efficacy in a few ways. The first is through measuring early-literacy skill gains, both overall and within subcategories, from the beginning to the end of the program using the computerized adaptive Waterford Assessment of Core Skills test. Also, the software itself conducts ongoing assessment, then adapts and reinforces lessons to ensure a child’s mastery of each skill encountered. Consistency is important, too, because the efficacy of the program is based on students using the program for the required minutes per day. Finally, efficacy is measured through external evaluations. A longitudinal study conducted by Evaluation and Training Institute showed that Upstart participants outperformed their non-Upstart peers on standard measures of literacy skills, like DIBELS and SAGE, through the 4th grade, the highest grade the students had achieved at the time of the study. A randomized controlled trial conducted by the Utah state board of education found that Waterford Upstart was successful helping children develop key early-literacy skills, and we have a second trial underway as we speak.
Rick: Waterford Upstart promises to provide mentorship for the student’s parents, beyond just teaching the students. What does this look like?
LaTasha: We definitely recognize that parents and guardians are their child’s first teacher and support families every step of the way. Our family coaches monitor children’s progress and proactively communicate with families to provide personalized support and motivation through phone calls, emails, and text messages. We also provide written materials and activities to encourage parents and guardians to engage with their child and support their child’s learning offline. Additionally, families have access to Waterford Mentor through their web browser and as a smartphone app. This provides families with information about their child’s usage and progress, as well as three weekly messages with personalized, targeted information and ideas to help them support their child’s learning.
Rick: What do you count as successful parent involvement?
LaTasha: We measure the success of family involvement by how regularly the child is using the program. If we see a child is on the program five days a week and reaching milestones, we will typically send those parents messages of encouragement to keep up the good work. If our family coaches notice a child is not using the program regularly and is falling behind, those are the families we reach out to more. We check on them, see how they are doing, and answer any questions they might have. We know parents are busy, so we encourage them to make Waterford Upstart a part of their daily routine so it’s not forgotten.
Rick: You recently partnered with Mississippi to help address gaps in preschool education caused by the pandemic. How does that work?
LaTasha: Waterford Upstart builds and expands community-based partnerships with groups like Excel by Five, school districts, Head Start, and other nonprofits to scale our program and provide early-childhood preparation at the state level. These partnerships help us work locally, in each community, to identify the families most in need of support. Waterford.org then works directly with eligible families who opt in to our program. In this way, we have achieved regional and statewide scaling successfully with high fidelity and consistently strong results. Mississippi’s pilot, funded by the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief, is just one example of that.
Rick: What advice do you have for parents navigating sending their children to preschool programs—perhaps for the first time—during this pandemic?
LaTasha: My advice for them is to have an academic component that they can use at home, so that even if their kids are not able to go every day to a brick-and-mortar preschool, they’re still in the habit of consistently learning. And, obviously, families should also be teaching kids how to be safe when they go back into an in-person environment, especially since some of these kids won’t realize they can’t hug their friends just yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.