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A new program offered by Aiken County Public Schools is giving young children at-home access to learning to help prepare them for kindergarten.

Administered by the nonprofit Waterford Institute, UPSTART uses home-based, online education technology combined with parent support and engagement to develop the readiness skills, especially reading skills, preschool children need to succeed in kindergarten.

Children, primarily 4 years of age, use the program from 15 to 20 minutes five days a week during the 10-month school year.

The individualized curriculum includes reading, math and science with an emphasis on reading.

The program is for children who were put on a waiting list this year for the district's 4K kindergarten classes.

Sean Alford

Dr. Sean Alford

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to reach those 4-year-olds who we have not been able to reach because they've been on a waiting list and we just didn't have room,” District Superintendent Dr. Sean Alford said. “But that's not a good reason not to provide services to families and students, especially when we've got great partners like Waterford.”

UPSTART is an academic program for children who do not have access to 4K kindergarten, said Rich Stombres, the director of State Advocacy and Lobbying for Waterford.

“If you cannot go to a center where you have a highly qualified teacher teaching you all day long, then at least you can have the academic component of it,” he said. “We're not trying to replace Head Start or the state-provided pre-K. We're trying to make sure there are services for kids who need them.”

Through UPSTART's individualized curriculum, children work at their own pace to master skills such as phonics, vocabulary, oral comprehension and concepts of written language, Stombres said.

“With an individualized, sequenced curriculum, the kids learn to mastery,” he said. “When they master a skill, such as phonics, they are able to advance. If they don't master, then the program does remediation without their knowing that it's remediation because everything looks different. They get that skill up to mastery, and then they move up.”

Upstart provides a computer and Internet access to families if they need them.

“The technology enables everybody to have a world-class education,” Stombres said. “The kids are ready – and usually beyond ready - based on state assessment by the time they get to kindergarten.”

The program also assigns a personal care representative, or a coach, to work with parents or caregivers, Stombres said.

“We realized we had to engage the parents,” he said. “The coach works with the families through the whole process with regular communication: phone calls, texting, data delivery.”

To be eligible for UPSTART next year, parents and caregivers need to register their children for 4K before the start of the 2019-20 school year, said Jennifer Stark, the district's coordinator for Early Learning Programs.

“I highly encourage parents, when registration comes around again for 4K next year, to register.” she said. “If they get a waiting list letter, we have an alternative program in place for them now.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.