It’s no secret: Alabama has a literacy problem. It’s an issue compounded by a global pandemic that continues affecting school districts statewide. Hardworking educators from across Alabama, including those in the River Region, are working to address this dilemma, recognizing that no one group can solve these issues alone. I’m hopeful that a nonprofit program for 4-year-olds that’s showing some real promise here in Alabama could be part of the overall solution.
Early education nonprofit Waterford.org in January released the first interim report for the Alabama Waterford Upstart pilot showing positive results. In the first 12 weeks, the average student is exceeding expectations in critical early literacy subskills including: phonics, comprehension and vocabulary, and language concepts. It puts these children on track to begin kindergarten this fall ready to learn.
Waterford Upstart is an in-home, kindergarten-readiness program aligned to the Alabama Developmental Standards for Preschool Children. In 2020, What Works Clearinghouse found Waterford Upstart to be significantly effective for promoting early literacy outcomes. The program provides positive parent-child interactions while delivering personalized, online instruction 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Parents are given the tools they need to become the first and most influential teachers of their children. Those tools include a parent coach, a computer and internet access, all at no cost.
Alabama is not alone in its lack of reading proficiency among young learners. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2019, only 35% of fourth-graders performed at or above proficiency in reading, which means the vast majority of our young learners nationwide are falling behind. Many researchers believe this academic gap begins before a child ever enters school.
Waterford Upstart was created in 2009 as a solution for the most rural 4-year-olds in Utah. Since then, the program has expanded to other states to fill early learning gaps caused by barriers such as transportation, cost and rural locations. In 2019, the TED Organization recognized Waterford Upstart as an Audacious Project, giving Waterford.org the funding to pilot the program in other states, including this year’s program in Alabama.
Right now, roughly 230 children from 79 municipalities and 39 counties are registered for Waterford Upstart and will continue their lessons through June 2022. Some of the most rural counties have just one or two children on the program, demonstrating its reach to students without access to early education. Waterford.org is also helping many of Alabama’s families who are lacking resources — more than 81 percent of the children in the program qualify for free and reduced-priced meals at school.
The results from the Waterford Upstart pilot will be available this summer, and I am hopeful they will show the positive results seen in so many other states. It could be a great help not only for the 230 children currently on the program but also for Alabama children in the years to come. While our hardworking educators come together to find solutions for academic achievement, I believe this program could be one option that could really close the gap. It’s a solution that could provide immediate help for our young learners.