UPSTART Posts Favorable Usage, Comprehension Rates in First Year

UPSTART Posts Favorable Usage, Comprehension Rates in First Year

Cohort #2 of 4-year-old online reading program is underway


Director of Early Learning Travis Armstrong is calling the first year of UPSTART a success. He was pleased to see that most of the 97 participating children devoted more than the required time to the program and mastered objectives as required.

As you recall, last year, WFISD was the first –and only -- Texas school district to adopt UPSTART, the online reading program for 4-year-olds. The program was free to any family with a 4-year-old who wasn’t already enrolled in a pre-K or Head Start program.

UPSTART is unique because its program unfolds in the child’s home, online, with a Chromebook that can become the child’s very own if he completes the program with the asked-for participation.

So what’s new with UPSTART as WFISD moves into its second year with it? Communication Specialist Ann Work Goodrich talked to Travis Armstrong to find out.


Q: Last year we were the first – and only – Texas school district using Upstart. Are we still?

A: Wichita Falls is still the only location in Texas to do this home program. Soon we will be using Smart Start, which is an in-class program, and several districts are using that. But the home-based program of UPSTART, where kids aren’t technically enrolled District students while they’re going through it, we’re still the first and only. That’s pretty neat. It was Mr. Kuhrt’s idea – I had nothing to do with it. I’m just running the nuts and bolts of it.


Q: So it’s expanding to include something called Smart Start?

A:  Yes, both are products of Waterford Early Learning. Smart Start is a reading program used in a classroom. Actually, WFISD has gotten the eye of the CEO and higher-ups of Waterford. They want to do three commercials featuring WFISD – one on UPSTART, one on Smart Start, and one that is a combination of the two that highlights Wichita Falls.


Q: So this is Year 2. You’ve just launched a second cohort of 103 children. How did the first cohort do?

A: There are two elements we look at. First, we look to see if the child uses it 20 minutes a day, five days a week. Second, we check to see that they master the objectives. We feel if they’re taking their time, learning the work and mastering the objectives, they’ll be successful. In our usage reports, we see that the cohort is using the program far more than the minimum of 75 minutes per week. Usage scores show they’re using it 115 to 120 minutes a week. There’s an incentive tied to that. Families were notified that if they use it 20 minutes a day and master the objectives, they get to keep the device, free.

The other report shows how many objectives each child encountered and how many they mastered. If they’re using it the correct amount of time and meeting mastery of 80 percent or better, we’ve got a green light and thumbs up. The average score is 91.

Each child has been assigned a personal rep who follows up with families if they notice a child is struggling. They’ll call and say, “Is there anything we can help with?” Most parents weren’t aware of a problem but might say, “Well, I sure noticed him finishing quickly.” It’s usually easily self-corrected.

Q: What’s new this year?

A: They’re adding more colorful graphics to the software. They’re trying to get it beefier and beefier. They’re making their reading standards more challenging. They’re including reading, math and science.

The neat thing about this program is that kids are assessed before they begin the program to see where they fall in a pre-K to second grade continuum. Wherever they fall, that’s where they start off. An advanced child might start at a first-grade level. So they don’t all start at the same academic spot. They start where they need to start to be challenged.


Q: Has anything else changed?

A: This program runs through the summer. This was the proof in the pudding for me. I asked parents, “Level with me. Is your kid bored to death or loving it?” They said, “We love it. It’s challenging.” Some parents said they hit a slump in the summer time. Other parents reported that kids had a lot of unscheduled time during the summer so the 20-minutes-a-day requirement was not hard to meet. This year, Waterford plans to send a crew out before summer comes and throw a pizza party to keep the children motivated.


Q: What sorts of comments have you had from parents?

A: One Hispanic gentleman pulled up to Farris Early Childhood Center one day where we were doing an introductory training with the kids. He pulled up in his work truck wearing work boots and work jeans. He looked like he worked in an oil field. He walked up to me real stoic and said, “Are you in charge here?” I said, “Yes sir.”

He said his daughter and wife were coming to the training. He was real gruff. He said, “I want you to level with me. You all are telling me this program is free? Level with me. How much will we get a bill for.”

“I said, ‘I am leveling with you. You will not get a bill. It’s free to your family. The tab has been paid. Someone else paid. Your child can get in free.”

He said, “Honestly?”

I said, “Honestly.” Then out of nowhere, he started tearing up. He shook my hand real hard. He said, “Thank you so much. I work. Her mom works. Our daughter was dying to go to school this year, but we couldn’t make it work. We couldn’t secure the transportation. It just wasn’t going to work out. So this is the perfect solution and perfect opportunity. We never had anything like this when we were growing up, did we?”

I said, “’I agree with you there.’ He got in his truck and left. Thirty minutes later, here comes the mom and his daughter. (Travis tears up at the memory). They’re wearing their Sunday best. They’re dressed up like it’s Easter Sunday. At first, I had thought, ‘This is cool. We’re doing this for the community.’ But that made it all worth it. You see those babies and know they wouldn’t have any other option.”

Parents have told me they feel their kids were challenged, and it did keep them engaged. One parent told me she liked the program because she didn’t know how to teach her child academics. She said, “I admire people who can homeschool, but I’m not a teacher. I don’t have the skill set. But I love this because I’ve just got to turn on the computer, log in, and just monitor and watch her do it.”

The children liked the program characters: a fox and a squirrel. The characters make quirky remarks. It’s fun. Children get positive reinforcement and immediate feedback. If a 4-year-old takes a little quiz and does well, it says, “Great job!” One parents said her daughter talked back to the characters.


Q: What’s next?

A: What I’m curious about is how will these kids in Cohort 1 perform throughout their kinder year? That is something that will take work on our end, but we do plan to track that. In Kindergarten, children are tested three times with the Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI) at the  beginning, middle and end of the year. It tracks how children are doing in their reading skills.  That’s our proof in the pudding. We want to see how these kiddos, versus maybe the ones we didn’t catch who didn’t attend any preschool or head start, are performing compared to other groups, and compared to students in an official pre-K class. We want to make sure it works and that they’re adequately or over-prepared.

We are excited to track that. It’s a guessing game until then.

But UPSTART has come to the rescue for many families. I remember talking to a woman who said, “Financially, we qualify for pre-k or Head Start, but I don’t own a vehicle. I’m disabled.” She rattled off her health issues, and there was a list.  She was grateful to hear about this program that they could do in her home. I feel grateful we’re able to reach some of the families that had no other option. Other families who could have afforded private preschool but weren’t quite ready to let their babies go to school also took advantage of UPSTART. So this has filled a gap in the community.