UPSTART from the Utah-based nonprofit Waterford Institute is a computer program that guides students through academic lessons using digital books, songs and games.
Though UPSTART is meant to be fun, Waterford’s Isaac Troyo says there’s substance behind the cartoon characters and flashy animations.
“The fact that the software can individualize the curriculum to the child is really what’s making an impact. Children are able to learn from the comfort of their home in a relaxed environment," he says.
Montana doesn’t fund public preschool, nor do the other four rural states sharing the $14.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant to launch UPSTART pilot programs.
The grant pays Waterford Institute to provide families with laptops and internet access, then 4 and 5-year-old students spend 15 to 20 minutes with the program five days a week.
Opponents don’t believe online pre-k programs provide children the face-to-face interactions they need for healthy development.
But a 2016 study by the Utah State Office of Education found that kids who used UPSTART before kindergarten had immediate positive gains and outperformed state averages in language arts, math and science from first through fourth grade.
Waterford typically provides UPSTART to rural families, urban low-income families and kids learning English as a second language.
Montana Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier says the state will likely use UPSTART in so-called “comprehensive districts.”
Schools within those districts place in Montana’s bottom five percent academically.
“They tend to be in or near our Tribal and Reservation communities and the students there have been identified as being in need of additional services,” Klapmeier says.
Waterford plans to enroll 200 Montana students in UPSTART during fall 2020. Another 400 students are expected to join the program in 2021.
There’s also a chance preschool could reach a wider pool of Montana children in coming years. Following success with a 2017 pilot program, Gov. Steve Bullock renewed calls for state-funded preschool grants ahead of the 2019 legislative session.