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Utah online program gives rural and underprivileged preschoolers more education options


This story is sponsored by Waterford UPSTART. Learn more about Waterford UPSTART.

In Escalante, Utah, stocking up the pantry is not an easy task. Just ask Tari Cottam, mother of six. “Typically we go to St. George, which is three hours away, and just make a big Costco run,” she says.

This is the reality that many households face in rural Utah. To make up for the distance from the nearest cities, Tari’s had to get creative when it comes to feeding her family. “I order a lot from Amazon, a lot from I just stock up and plan!”

Where there are not readily accessible groceries, there is also probably a lack of easily accessible schooling for children.

These are the real-life struggles the state of Utah was trying to address when they partnered with 10 years ago to create the Waterford UPSTART program. They wanted to make sure all families, no matter their barriers, have the opportunity to prepare their children for school. And now, this Utah-created solution is spreading to fill early education gaps across the nation.

The statistics are staggering. According to a U.S. Department of Education report, many as 60% of 4-year-olds across the country are not enrolled in publicly funded preschool, leaving many children without a viable resource for kindergarten preparation. And the problem is even worse for low-income families.

This was the focus of a recent article in The New York Times. Reporter Nellie Bowles wrote, “Most states have a vast patchwork of preschool choices… But many families still 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 school.”

High-quality early education programs can improve academic skills, narrow achievement gaps, and promote long-term school success, according to research gleaned from the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education. Although the benefits of in-person preschool are clear, the income gap in America means that many families don’t have access to those programs.

This lack of high-quality pre-kindergarten programs can have devastating results. Studies show children in low-income and marginalized communities are far less prepared for their first day of kindergarten than their more privileged classmates.

The Times article continues, “As the economic chasm in the United States grows, who gets access to human interaction is becoming a stark dividing line through every stage of life.”

Rural families have a different hurdle that’s just as significant. For many, preschool isn’t an option because they live too far away from the nearest program. Other families prefer to keep early learning in the home and provide their own social-emotional development for their children.

Many want to provide their children with a high-quality education, but they’re left wondering how to provide it on a budget.

Utah-based educational nonprofit Waterford UPSTART has become one option that might fill the education gap between wealthy and low-income families, according to the New York Times article. They claim the organization could be just the thing to help children with no access to preschool prepare for their first day of school.

Waterford UPSTART was launched in 2009 as an at-home school readiness program available to Utah families at no cost. In the last decade, the program has expanded, providing education to thousands of rural, low-income, refugee, and English-language learning families across the country.

When families take part in Waterford UPSTART, they receive the tools they need to prepare their children for school. That includes parent support and coaching, access to award-winning early learning curriculum and, since the program is designed for families in need, a computer and internet service is provided at no cost.

“This is not a program for children of the rich, who are generally enrolled in play-based preschools that last at least several hours,” states the Times article. “Instead, it is geared to lower-income families with fewer prekindergarten options.”

Research shows Waterford UPSTART supports English Language Learners (ELL) and helps low-income and minority students. Those academic advancements last years after the program is completed. Findings also indicate that children who used the program at the recommended 15 minutes per day reported the highest academic gains over time.

The nonprofit also pays close attention to the use of screentime, keeping the daily activities far below the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended amount of one hour of quality screen time per day for children between the ages of 2 and 4.

Those proven results are leading to quite a bit of national attention for this early education nonprofit. In spring 2019, Waterford UPSTART was recognized as a TED Audacious Project, leading to funding in several different states, including California. The U.S. Department of Education also gave the nonprofit a grant to run pilot programs across five western states with no state-funded preschool options.

Next steps for Waterford UPSTART in Utah

Waterford UPSTART is registering a record number of Utah families this fall, but spaces are limited. If you need a computer or internet service, both can be provided at no cost to qualifying families.

To learn more or to register, go to