INDIANAPOLIS — Lilly Flynn hasn’t entered kindergarten yet but the 5-year-old from Georgetown, Indiana, is already reading at a beginner’s level, thanks in part to lessons she completes five nights a week after dinner, according to her mother.
Lilly is one of about 100 children participating in a pilot project called UPSTART. The computer-based kindergarten-readiness program that features 15-minute lessons has generated buzz — and some questions — in Indiana as lawmakers set aside $1 million for such programs in a measure aimed at helping poor children.
“She’s motivated and loves the fact she can read now,” Lilly’s mother, Jill Flynn, said “She gets on, she can learn, she’s able to read books like her big brother.”
UPSTART, developed by Utah-based Waterford Institute, has been embraced by the Utah Legislature and piloted in several states, including South Carolina, Ohio, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. Research shows it helps students develop literacy skills before entering kindergarten, but some education experts remain wary about computer-based programs’ effectiveness in promoting behavioral or social learning.
In Indiana, preschool was a high-profile issue this legislative session, as lawmakers disagreed about how much to expand a state program that sends poor children to preschool, a top priority for Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma. They ultimately agreed to send additional money to that program — with an added provision for “technology-based in-home early education services.”
Early education advocates say they are pleased with the state’s overall investment, which nearly doubles the funding and expands the program for poor children from five counties to up to 15 counties. But some believe funding should have gone to proven high-quality preschool programs for low-income students before the online programming.
“I had hoped that whatever investment the state would make in pre-K would be in classroom-based pre-K that would be in a quality setting and led by a skilled teacher,” said Ted Maple, CEO of Early Learning Indiana.
UPSTART provides children with personalized online lessons, books, songs and activities designed to improve reading and other skills, focusing on preparing students for kindergarten. It also encourages parents to monitor their children’s progress and engage with their studies.
Company officials don’t use the word “preschool” to describe the UPSTART program, instead calling it a “kindergarten-readiness” program.
To Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, interacting with a computer and not real people and real things means students may not fully experience the “world of learning and feeling” that a rich early education program could provide.
“The online preschool can, in 15 minutes, drill kids about items on the test, but that’s not developing the fundamental domains of deep knowledge and understanding,” Barnett said. “Dumbing it down to letters and numbers is really unfortunate.”
UPSTART appears to be a strong contender for the funds Indiana set aside. Representatives met with legislative leaders and testified on behalf of the bill, which specifically sets out that online programs eligible for reimbursement must include a “parental engagement and involvement component.” Company officials say UPSTART’s “parent support models” are unique among competitors.
Marni Lemons, a spokeswoman for the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, said in a statement that the agency’s Office of Early Childhood and Out-of-School Learning will be “seeking information on existing in-home early education services available in the state.”
Administrators from the New Albany Floyd County school district said they have heard positive things from parents with children in UPSTART, though they added that it’s probably best used in combination with an in-person preschool program.
“If you combine, it’s better. But if not, it’s a viable option for affordable opportunities for kids to learn,” said administrator Tony Duffy. “You are going to learn. Letters, sounds, sight words — you’re going to be reading on your own if you do that program.”
In Utah, about 10 percent of children combine UPSTART with a preschool offered by a district, said Claudia Miner, vice president of development at Waterford.
In Indiana, Lilly Flynn is enrolled in a half-day preschool and goes to day care. Still, her mother credits UPSTART for her reading ability.
“I think it’s done wonders for her,” Jill Flynn said. “My son, he went to the same preschool and is an excellent reader now, but was not going into kindergarten. I know that UPSTART had to be part of that for her.”
Still, that structure may not be feasible for children whose parents are struggling to make ends, making its inclusion in a package aimed at poor children a bit puzzling, said Madeleine Baker, CEO of Early Child Alliance.
“The $1 million for in-home learning clearly wasn’t for what we call the working poor,” Baker said.