Program gets Utah preschoolers started on computers

Sunday , June 29, 2014 - 12:32 PM

Standard-Examiner staff

Talmage Thurgood gets up early, and goes to preschool — in his living room. The 5-year-old turns on his computer, signs on to UPSTART, and lessons begin.

UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow) is an in-home, online preschool program designed to get children ready for kindergarten. The focus of the program is reading, but there are also math and science activities.

On a recent morning, Talmage used the computer program to learn about the “ane” word family. A short story appeared on the screen, and the preschooler was asked to click on words in the story that end with “ane.” He was rewarded with a cartoon of a flying airplane.

Talmage also practiced reading words that end with “ake” and “ash,” by matching words pronounced by a child’s voice to words shown in colorful balloons on the computer screen. Another activity tested his word recognition skills using a video, in which a roller-skating turtle jumped for correct answers.

“There are usually sections where it records him reading,” said Talmage’s mother, Lisette Thurgood of Roy. “He can play it back, and hear himself reading.”

Talmage started using the UPSTART program last August.

“He probably didn’t know his ABCs or the sounds of letters at the beginning of the program,” said Thurgood, noting that her son is now reading on the first grade level. “He’ll read a book to the family, that he checked out of the library. What a sense of accomplishment he’s had.”

According to a “ReadyNation” report by the America’s Promise Alliance, children can enter kindergarten up to 18 months behind their peers. Kids who aren’t ready for kindergarten are half as likely to read well by third grade, and third graders who are behind on reading are four times more likely to eventually drop out of school.

Traditional preschool can help, but for many families it’s too expensive or inconvenient — especially in rural areas. Other families prefer to keep young children at home, but aren’t sure how to teach them.

UPSTART was started in 2008, as a pilot program funded by the Utah Legislature. The program was reauthorized in 2014, for another five years, with additional funding to expand from 1,500 to 5,000 children served annually. An additional grant of $11.5 million, from the federal government, will expand UPSTART in rural school districts; it will also add a summer component to keep students from losing much of what they learned during the school year.

Waterford Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Sandy, was selected to provide the curriculum software.

“A center-based program can cost from $5,000 to $9,000 a year,” said Taylor Rosecrans, Waterford Institute’s legislative liaison for the Utah UPSTART program. “UPSTART has averaged $1,300 per child per year. .. This year it’s going to cost the Legislature less than $900 per child for a full program year.”

For families who sign up for UPSTART, the program is free.

“If families do not have Internet access or a computer, we provide one on loan for the length of the program,” said Rosecrans.

The program is designed to be used during the year prior to kindergarten.

“We can take anyone in the state,” said Rosecrans, but openings are limited. “It was put in the legislation that we have as a priority low-income families and English language learner families, so we will always accept them first if there’s a waiting list.”

Families can register online, at, or by phone at 800-960-4002.

At this point there isn’t a waiting list, however, interested families need to sign up right away because slots fill up fast and training sessions for parents begin the third week of July.

Participating children are tested before starting the program, and at the end of the year to check their progress. In between they’re expected to use the program at least 15 minutes a day, but not more than 45 minutes a day, five days a week.

Thurgood started the program by making a sticker chart to motivate Talmage to use UPSTART, but found it wasn’t necessary.

“He honestly felt such a sense of achievement in learning to read,” she said.

Parents are encouraged to be involved, and receive weekly communications with progress reports and suggestions for supplemental activities, but children often work independently on the computer.

“We have parents say ‘I put my child on the computer, and then I go take a shower or do laundry,’ ” said Rosecrans. “We have safety features to make sure children can’t get to other websites.”

The UPSTART program includes Waterford Institute’s “Rusty and Rosy Learn with Me,” which offers more than 2,500 lessons, 7,000 activities, 360 books, 330 animated songs, and more. There’s also “Camp Consonant,” with more than 2,700 activities. The software is adaptive, moving children at a faster pace when they’re catching on.

“If a child’s having trouble telling the difference between ‘b’ and ‘d,’ the software remembers and will bring the concept back with a new lesson,” Rosecrans said.

According to research results shared by Waterford Institute, 99.4 percent of parents would recommend the program to others. The organization also has an external group evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

“The evaluator uses two standard tests, Bader and Brigance,” said Rosecrans. “With UPSTART children, on average their gains are twice as large as the control group across those two tests.”

Thurgood was able to enroll her son in a small but traditional preschool program outside of her home, and says it’s provided important social and creative experiences. She credits his reading gains to the computer program he’s used at home.

“Really, the core of what he learned in the last 11 months came from UPSTART,” she said.

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

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