Can 15 minutes a day of online preschool help prepare a child for kindergarten?

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This story about early education in Mississippi was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

 This month, Mississippi is wrapping up giving thousands of 5-year-olds their first-ever test — an exam to see whether they’ve developed the early literacy skills they’ll need to succeed in kindergarten.

Most will likely fail, if past trends hold.

Of the more than 35,000 Mississippi kindergarten students who took the state’s skills assessment last fall, about 64 percent scored below the state’s readiness benchmark. Since then, the state has made few strides in expanding efforts to help more of its youngest children prepare for school.

Although more than 20,000 Mississippi children age 5 and under are enrolled in Head Start, and Mississippi legislators have slowly added seats to the state’s highly-rated public preschool program, nearly half of the state’s 4-year-olds do not attend preschool at all, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center.

And while Head Start focuses intently on the health and emotional and developmental needs of some of the most vulnerable children in the state, providing access to a suite of services at no cost, the quality of the early childhood education it provides has faced scrutiny.

During the 2017 school year, children who attended Head Start in Mississippi scored only about a point higher on the state’s kindergarten readiness assessment than their peers who received care at home.

But some Magnolia State early education leaders say a new effort could move the needle in the future. An online-kindergarten readiness program known as UPSTART has joined with the Mississippi Head Start Association to boost parent engagement in their young children’s learning and also improve the children’s academic readiness.

A Utah-based non-profit, the Waterford Institute, runs UPSTART. Kids, ideally with an adult nearby, pace through the program’s animated lessons, songs and games, which introduce them to the connection between sounds and letters and other early academic concepts.

Before beginning the nine-month program, children are tested to determine what they already know. A child able to recognize sight words will start at a different stage of the curriculum, for example, than a peer beginning to learn the difference between numbers and letters.

LaTasha Hadley, director of UPSTART in Mississippi, said children in the pilot program were randomly assigned a reading or science curriculum. UPSTART covered internet service costs for 60 percent of participating families. Laptops were also provided at no charge, as needed.

During the 2018-19 school year, nearly 700 Mississippi children enrolled in Head Start logged on to the online software program at home. UPSTART recommended students spend at least 15 minutes a day during the school week participating in the online program.

Most Mississippi families surpassed the recommended usage. Children logged on for an average of 100 minutes a week during the second quarter of the program. This enthusiasm doesn’t quell concern of some early education experts who say computer programs cannot replicate essential facets of early education in which social skills are developed with peers and interactivity occurs with a teacher.

Claudia Miner, executive director for UPSTART, said the intent of UPSTART efforts in Mississippi is not to compete with traditional preschool programs. “We’re not coming to replace anything,” she said. “We honor everything being done, but where there are gaps, we want people to think about us.”

Nita Norphlet-Thompson, an executive director of the Mississippi Head Start Association, has welcomed the collaboration. She praised what she calls “the collateral success” of having families spend time together working through the computer program. That time can boost the emotional development in children facing the daily stressors accompanying poverty, she said.

“For children who live in vulnerable families where every day parents are trying to figure something out … to then have an opportunity to say, ‘We’re going to pull all of that aside and right for now the most important thing is you.’ There’s no way you can measure the value of that, but it there’s and it’s real,” Norphlet-Thompson said.

The purpose of UPSTART’s work in Mississippi isn’t to reform Head Start. Norphlet-Thompson said the partnership will look at whether the program makes a difference in school readiness in districts where there is an existing relationship with Head Start programs.

“That can help us identify successes or things we need to be able to do better or need to do a course correction on,” Norphlet-Thompson said.

This story about early education in Mississippi was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.