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Filling the Gaps: Alumna uses technology to provide pre-K education to all

November 5, 2019
By Jack Ehlenberger '20

The benefits of pre-kindergarten education are well-studied; studies show children without access to early education enter the first day of kindergarten at a disadvantage and are more likely to drop out and less likely to attend college. Though federal, state and private programs in the last half-century have expanded early education, there are still more than two million 4-year-olds in the United States without access to pre-K. Claudia Miner ’78, the cofounder executive director of Waterford UPSTART, is working to make quality early education available to all at no cost to families. She recently gave a TED talk on the topic.

What is UPSTART?

Upstart is a homebased kindergarten readiness program that uses an online curriculum and strong parent coaching model to prepare children for kindergarten. Children use the program 15 minutes a day, five days a week, and we work with their parents to support that learning offline as well. Our organization provides the programming at no cost to every family through the use of funds provided by donors, grants and local governments.

Who is the target audience?

Simply put: 4-year-olds. However, our emphasis is on unserved children and underserved children. Unserved children have no access to preschool because of rurality, transportation, parent choice and cost. Underserved children may attend preschool part time, or if they attend full time, could benefit from additional cognitive or language work.

What does the curriculum entail?

The initial focus is early literacy ­­– getting children ready to learn to read ­­– and some of them even learn to read while enrolled in the program. As a secondary component, there is access to math and science software, but the emphasis is early literacy. That includes things like learning all of your letters, letter sounds, phonics (the relationship between sounds and written symbols), phonemic awareness (the understanding that a word is made up of a series of sounds) and then reading comprehension.

What is the expected enrollment this year?

Across the country, this year, our goal is 22,000 children, the majority of whom are in Utah (where was founded).

How are you working on expanding the program?

We've moved into about 18 states outside of Utah so far, and we're piloting the program to populations in those states to see if it’s useful, if it works and if there’s an interest in that program being in that state.

What challenges do you face when you try to implement the program in a new state?

The biggest challenge is people thinking we’re there to replace something that already exists. We are not a competitor to site-based preschools at all. We are trying to fill gaps. With rural preschools it is very difficult to put a 4-year-old on a bus and many rural districts don’t offer transportation to 4-year-olds. Some parents can’t transport their children if they’re working. So, doing something in the home can get them ready for kindergarten.

How did you become involved in the program?

I’ve always been in the nonprofit world and 12 years ago I was working with a great nonprofit that did environmental work and really wanted to do something that would have more of an immediate impact. When this opportunity came up, I joined This program was the first thing I worked on at Waterford, and I’ve been working on it and growing it ever since.

How did William & Mary prepare you for your work with UPSTART?

In my Ted talk, my first line was “I’m a historian.” That’s what I studied at William & Mary, so writing and delivering that talk took me back to my days at William & Mary.

I received access to a great liberal arts education and I think that prepares all of us to give back to the community. That always stuck with me. It is why I went into the nonprofit sector to begin with, and working with UPSTART is a natural extension of that. I went to William & Mary in the 1970s and the idea of giving back was very much part of the philosophy and community at the time, just as it is today.