SALT LAKE CITY — As lawmakers discuss preschool options and school technology aids this session, one program that already combines the two is more than halfway through its trial.
UPSTART, an in-home pilot program geared toward 4-year-olds, was created by the Legislature in 2009. It hinges on software developed by Salt Lake City's Waterford Institute and focuses on literacy and math, helping to lay foundations for learning before kids enter school.
"We're going to have to go young and we're going to have to get them in the family," said Dusty Heuston founder of the Waterford Institute.
The Legislature has funded other early learning programs like optional extended-day kindergarten, where students attend school for more than the standard half-day. But UPSTART is different in that all the learning takes place at home.
Participants and their families commit to using the interactive software for 15 minutes a day, five days a week and the children take two assessments during the year to track progress. Children repeat words, order words into sentences, trace numbers on the computer screen with their finger and even read aloud. Animated characters guide the study, sometimes including songs and music.
All told, UPSTART has reached more than 3,000 homes since it began.
Claudia Miner, vice president for development at the institute, said UPSTART can level the playing field for early education in the state. While most preschools are privately run and charge tuition, UPSTART is state-funded. What's more, it's geared toward low-income families, so if a family can't afford a computer to run the software, the state will loan them one.
"The children in downtown Salt Lake and the children in Moab or Blanding are getting the exact same program," Miner said.
That's important in a state with ever-changing demographics, where many students enter school far behind as they have never been read to or held a book. Research shows that if students aren't able to read by third grade, the gap between them and their peers widens every year after.
But the program also comes with a pricetag. UPSTART has received more than $8 million since its inception, according to the State Office of Education.
"The challenge for Utah is when you have fewer financial resources, you've got to be careful how you spend them," said Brenda Hales, associate state superintendent. Hales serves on the UPSTART advisory committee and said the program has run efficiently. She's looking forward to hearing more about its trial run when a report is presented later this year.
"I want to compare the cost to other programs, too," Hales said.
For Heuston, UPSTART is just one facet of his passion for technology. He's been jazzed about it since dot matrix printers and floppy disks were cutting-edge. A former teacher and headmaster of a private school in New York City, Heuston felt software and technology were a way to effectively reach all children despite their demographic and geographic differences.
It's an easier sell today than when he was originally trying to sling software learning in the 1970s.
"I was running around with little chips in my hand, saying, 'This is coming, this is coming' and people would look at me like I was crazy," he said.
Today, it's a different story with people embracing technology like the air they breathe — including education software and applications. The difficulty now, Heuston said, is in finding a system that actually provides an educational benefit.
Toy store aisles are chock full of flashing learning toys for children, but not all battery-operated gizmos or $1.99 downloadable phone apps are created equal, Heuston said.
"They build something that looks nice and is really truly lovely, but it is not the substance of a core curriculum," he said. "It's too expensive to build great software. … Companies come up with an app, generate revenue, go public, sell, get investments. … They can't do anymore (research and development) and so they have to keep flagging and pushing what they have."
Heuston said UPSTART is "enhanced software," and is proven to help. According to Waterford data, children who completed a year of the program scored at an advanced kindergarten level or a first-grade level in most subjects. Also according to UPSTART officials, 99.9 percent of parents felt the program helped prepare their children for kindergarten.
UPSTART wraps up its pilot years period in 2014, and Heuston said he'd naturally love to see the Legislature extend it well beyond its current reach. What it comes down to, he said, is helping kids early before they're so far behind they give up.
"It is not innocuous if the kid doesn't get it," he said. "Unless you can straighten it out, you're producing a psychologically damaged child."