Monday, January 20, 2020

Online Pre-K Literacy Program UPSTART Powers Educational Success for At-Risk Children

The online pre-kindergarten (pre-K) literacy program called UPSTART created by seeks to blend the best aspects of learning science, mentoring relationships, and innovative technologies to form community, school, and in-home programs that deliver literacy excellence and equity for unserved and under-served four-year-old learners.

About half of America’s four-year-old children are not prepared to begin kindergarten when they turn five. In Philadelphia, for example, nearly two-thirds of children cannot read at grade level by the fourth grade, which is a challenge made worse by a shortage of affordable pre-K literacy programs. Children without access to pre-K education may enter school as many as two years behind and may never catch up with their classmates. Their parents have little or no affordable access to early education solutions to prepare their children for school. And their children therefore are at the greatest risk of multi-generational functional illiteracy that can adversely affect them for the rest of their lives.

The nonprofit in Salt Lake City, Utah, has created an evidence-tested, home-based, successful, online pre-K literacy program called UPSTART. UPSTART enables early education access to unserved and under-served families in their homes by providing parental support, technology, and internet connectivity, thereby ensuring equity and fairness for all four-year-olds, regardless of their socio-economic status. In Utah’s Washington County School District, for example, about half of its schools are Title I schools with students who faced significant achievement gaps and were unable to catch up with their peers. The district ran two early learning programs simultaneously to prepare their children for kindergarten. After a head-to-head comparison, the children who used software displayed greater gains in early literacy and were better prepared to enter kindergarten than students who did not use Waterford UPSTART.

Waterford UPSTART empowers parents because the program is voluntary and it increases parental choice, parental involvement, and parental control of their children’s learning. UPSTART supports families through personalized parental coaching, empowering parents as their children’s first educator in the home to prepare their children to arrive at school ready to learn. Parents help their children invest 15 minutes online for five days per week for nine months using exciting literacy programming. Waterford UPSTART children thereby enter kindergarten reading at nearly a first-grade level and outperform their peers on standardized tests at least through the fourth grade.

According to a New York Times story, most states have preschool choices — some public, some private, half day, full day, local and state run. But many families fall in between, earning too much to qualify for public programs while not being able to afford private ones, or living too far from the nearest site-based pre-K school, or living in states which do not yet provide publicly-financed pre-K education.

UPSTART has been pilot-tested in urban working-class families, low-income rural families, and non-English-speaking refugee families. The online UPSTART lessons are animated, funny, and interesting to children; they keep children’s attention as they learn. In one lesson, for example, children listen to a song and watch a video about how “gh” is silent in many English words. 

UPSTART is funded by state legislatures, private donations from programs like TED’s philanthropic arm called the Audacious Project, and grants from the federal Department of Education. was founded by Dr. Dustin Heuston, a pioneering educator who believed every child is entitled to lifelong learning success. Over the years, Dr. Heuston built a technology-based collaborative model of child, family, and educator engagement that delivers significant and lasting academic achievement gains. 

Blog Author James R. Holbrook is a retired clinical legal professor who is a board member of

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