- NC Policy Watch - http://www.ncpolicywatch.com -

Controversial virtual Pre-K experiment is already underway in NC

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Jennifer Ruff, a Chatham County preschool teacher, believes the Waterford program can be a valuable supplement in a traditional classroom setting. (Photo by Greg Childress)

The chuckles usually come before a question about the viability of an online preschool can be completed.

There’s just something about the concept that makes people want to giggle.

But early childhood education is no laughing matter in North Carolina, which has a long waiting list for pre-kindergarten students.

How long is the list?

It’s long enough that some state lawmakers think an online preschool program could help address the shortage of seats, particularly for children in rural, poor communities that can’t generate enough tax revenue to create additional preschool classrooms.

Even though N.C. Pre-K, the state’s preschool program for at-risk children, serves more than 29,000 4-year-olds, there are thousands more stuck on a waiting list each year.

Studies show that quality early childhood education is critical for a child’s future academic success.

Many state lawmakers, some reluctantly, have bought into the idea that children need quality preschool instruction to prepare them for kindergarten, and beyond.

“High-quality Pre-K is the best solution, no question about it,” Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union), said last month after introducing House Bill 485, which would create an online preschool in North Carolina.

A report released this week by Program Evaluation Division (PED) of the General Assembly recommended that North Carolina focus on early childhood education to close the state’s stubborn achievement gap.

That report is certain to get plenty attention next month when the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee meets.

If approved, HB 485 would authorize the State Board of Education to select 10 school districts to participate in a three-year pilot program using the home-based Waterford UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow) kindergarten readiness program launched in 2009 by Utah-based nonprofit, Waterford Inc.

The UPSTART curriculum was used by 1,631 students in Utah in 2009. Now, a reported 19,000 families use UPSTART at a cost of about $7.7 million to Utah.

Also, there are small, pilot programs in 15 states around the country.

In North Carolina, two school districts – Columbus and Duplin county schools – are experimenting with Waterford Early Learning (WEL) curriculum for students in grades K-2.

And three districts – Chatham, Durham and Robeson county schools – are testing driving Waterford’s SmartStart PreK curriculum. Chatham also uses WEL for its English learners.

Educators in Chatham and Durham have mostly good news to report about the Waterford curriculum.

But no one interviewed for this story believe Waterford’s early learning products are ideal replacements for traditional preschool. 

“When I heard that they were looking into a virtual preschool, my initial thought was, that will never work,” said Suzanne Cotterman, director of the Office of Early Education for Durham Public Schools. “Children learn through play and there’s so much more to it than screen time. As far as using it in place of preschool, I don’t agree with that.”

Carrie Little, executive director of federal programs and school improvement for Chatham County Schools, agrees that children are served best in a traditional preschool.

But Little said an online option may be acceptable in rural communities where there’s little chance preschool classrooms will be made available.

“Having an opportunity to just make something available is important to all of us,” Little explained.

Sentiments against HB 485 have been strong.

 Justin Parmenter, a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, called it the latest “shockingly bad education” policy out of the General Assembly.

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Ken Dodge

And Josh Golin, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, voiced similar concerns in an interview with The Hechinger Report.

“It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children,” Golin said. “Children at that age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and caring teachers … none of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”

Kenneth Dodge, a Duke University professor and one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on early childhood education, told Policy Watch last month that the state’s four-year-olds would be better served by more preschool seats than an online school.

“My hypothesis is that it would be a failure because the value in Pre-K is less about the skill-learning in reading and math and more about skill-learning in social-emotional domains such as self-regulation, turn-taking, cooperation, waiting in line, social problem-solving, relating to peers and adults, and the other behaviors involved in going to school,” Dodge said.

Kim Fischer, spokesperson for Waterford, flew from Utah to North Carolina this week to accompany a reporter on a tour of preschool classrooms in Chatham County Schools.

Fischer insists that even in Utah, Waterford is not being used as a replacement for traditional preschool.

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Kim Fischer, spokesperson for Waterford

“What we do is 15 minutes [online each day] plus we give parents a lot of the things the teachers do,” Fischer said. “Obviously, a parent is never going to be a teacher. However, we try to give parents the tools to engage with their children off line. We have workbooks, we have printouts, we have coloring sheets, we have plenty of information we can give to parents to try to help them become their child’s first teacher.”   

Meanwhile, Ashley Eatmon, a preschool teacher at Whitted School in Durham, a preschool center with eight preschool classrooms, said the Waterford program reinforces traditional preschool lessons.

“It’s helping them to learn through fun and engaging activities,” Eatmon said. “It’s what kids like to do now is play on the smart tablets.”

Children using the kindergarten readiness program spend 15 minutes per day on reading, math, and science lessons. The lessons involve songs and games designed to help children learn.

Jennifer Ruff, a preschool teacher at Perry W. Harrison Elementary School in Chatham County, said the Waterford program has been a valuable supplement to what’s provided in the traditional classroom.

“I’ve seen the growth in my students’ letter recognition and my families are able to do an activity together,” Ruff said.

Both the Chatham and Durham school districts began using the Waterford products early this year so they do not yet have data to say whether it’s a success or failure.

Both Cotterman and Little said their school districts will continue to use to see if it helps students grow academically.

“If we find it successful, we’re thinking about expanding,” Cotterman said.