Five-year-old Cherrise Parrish is completing the UPSTART cloud-based reading curriculum on a laptop at home, even though her ultra-rural house doesn't have electricity or an Internet connection.
Parrish is among hundreds of children in Utah's most remote regions benefiting from a Waterford Institute initiative that has developed unique technology solutions utilizing open-sourced hardware to bring kindergarten readiness instruction to children in rural areas.
Children like Parrish, a member of the Navajo Nation in the vast Monument Valley, complete their learning activities on a Chromebook, which is connected through a USB port to a Raspberry Pi device that houses UPSTART curriculum. The child's progress is assessed at UPSTART servers through a satellite or cellular Internet connection. And the ensemble is powered by a car battery connected to solar panels outside the house.
Waterford developers used the open-source platform Raspberry Pi to develop tools for the rural program. The Raspberry Pi is an open source, low cost, credit-card- sized computer. Waterford uses it to house the UPSTART curriculum, and to utilize the built-in cellular chip to send the students progress to Waterford servers once a day through a cellular network connection. For children living outside of cellular service areas, the Raspberry Pi connects to Waterford's servers through a satellite Internet connection.
Waterford began developing ways to deliver its online curriculum experience to children who live in regions without power or mainline Internet connections in 2013. A $11.5 million federal i3 grant is helping Waterford expand the program to more children in rural regions of Utah.
"We're able to teach children who otherwise wouldn't be reached," Claudia Miner, Ph.D., Waterford's vice president for development, says in her office in Salt Lake City.
Waterford's mission is to close the early learning gap because of a crucial finding that is now commonly accepted in education: children not caught up to their peers academically by the third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school.
Waterford's rural effort is an expansion of the statewide UPSTART in-home, kindergarten readiness program, a Utah-funded program for preschool-aged children. UPSTART has graduated more than 13,000 children since it was launched in 2009, and the program provides a computer and Internet connection free of charge to families who qualify.
Independent assessments have shown that children who complete UPSTART may be up to three times as ready to attend and succeed in kindergarten as those who haven't completed the program. That research led Waterford to seek the i3 grant and expand UPSTART to children in Utah's rural areas.
Waterford is now serving 18 Utah school districts with UPSTART's rural initiative. State education officials say they are pleased to serve children such as Parrish and others who could benefit from in-home early literacy curriculum but live away from Internet or mobile connection service.
"We are excited to have districts participating in the i3 program as it will address a real need in the rural areas—giving our young children and their families educational resources that get them started on the right foot with their education" said Martell Menlove, Utah's former state superintendent of public instruction who encouraged district adoption of the program while in office.
At the heart of UPSTART is Waterford Early Learning, which is a robust reading curriculum for preK-second grade, as well as parent engagement training, pre- and post-assessment, and a remedial program for children who need additional instruction.
The adaptive software tracks the student's performance and progression, allowing them to complete curriculum at a self-directed pace.
Miner says what they are learning from the rural-focused project could help other children throughout the U.S.
"This could be a game changer for every rural child,"says Miner, who hopes to help more children like Cherrise Parrish who might otherwise fall behind and face an academic career of playing catch-up.