This online program aims to prepare rural Idaho kids for kindergarten. And it’s free.

Thanks to a federal grant, a free online kindergarten readiness program will be offered this fall to 4 and 5-year-olds in rural areas across Idaho.

The nonprofit Waterford Institute — which runs the Waterford UPSTART program — received a $14.2 million, five-year Education Innovation and Research grant in October 2018 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Waterford is using grant money to start UPSTART pilot programs in five largely rural states: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. Offerings will be up and running by this fall.

UPSTART is “technology-delivered in-home kindergarten readiness,” said Claudia Miner, chief UPSTART officer for the Waterford Institute. It’s not called preschool, she added, because “we don’t do the same things preschool does.”

The program is for 4-and-5-year-olds the year before they go into kindergarten. There’s no cost to participating families. The program offers an online curriculum with free lessons, digital books and animated songs.

UPSTART mostly targets children who don’t have access to any kindergarten preparation. “Our first goal is children who don’t have another preschool,” Miller said.

The exception may be children who are learning to speak English, she said, who are in preschool but use UPSTART as well to improve their language skills and get their parents involved in their education.

UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow) is a publicly-funded program that started in 2009 in Utah and has since expanded to other states. More than 15,000 children participated last year.

Idaho is among only five U.S. states that don’t have publicly funded preschool.

The price tag of private preschool education is out of reach for some families. Advocates say the lack of state-funded preschool is holding children back. But opponents say it’s the responsibility of parents, not the government, to prepare children for school.

Idaho children who are in the attendance zone for a school district or public charter school that qualifies as rural — as defined by the federal government — is eligible to participate in UPSTART. Nearly three-quarters of the districts and charter schools in Idaho qualify.

UPSTART officials plan to start recruiting children this spring, Miller said. The program aims to enroll 200 children across Idaho for the upcoming school year and 400 the following year.

“We’re very excited about working with our neighbor, Idaho,” Miller said.

Through UPSTART, children spend 15-20 minutes each day, five days a week on the program.

“That’s important because it’s well beneath the screen time recommendation by the (American Academy of Pediatrics),” Miller said, adding research shows children learn best if they learn a little every day.

Every participating family will receive a Chromebook laptop computer they can keep if they meet the usage requirement during the year, Miller said.

Online kindergarten readiness programs face some criticism. In October 2018, a statement from Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Defending the Early Years specifically names a few programs, including UPSTART.

Virtual preschools “deny children the hands-on, face-to-face school experiences that research shows is critical to both early learning and later-in-life success,” the groups said in a statement.

Across Idaho, school districts often provide preschool for children who have disabilities, but not for all students. There are some exceptions, such as the Murtaugh School District, which offers preschool for all of its 4-year-olds.

The College of Southern Idaho’s Head Start program offers preschool for families living in poverty, but there’s a waiting list.

In October 2018, the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children kicked off a two-year statewide project called “Preschool the Idaho Way.” It’s funded by a $500,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Within the next year, Idaho AEYC will identify 10 to 13 communities across Idaho that would like technical assistance in putting together a local preschool collaborative — a partnership among groups such as Head Start, child care providers, faith-based groups and school districts.

For nontraditional kindergarten preparation options, Smarty Ants is a free web-based program offered by the Idaho State Department of Education.

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