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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lincoln Elementary preschool teacher Dan Fetzer reads "The Little Red Hen" with the help of his three and four-year-old students, Wednesday, January 22, 2014.
In-class or at-home preschool? Utah legislators to debate funds
Legislature » Lawmakers now seem to agree early childhood education is key and will weigh various approaches.
First Published Jan 27 2014 07:06 am • Last Updated Feb 10 2014 09:15 am

On a recent Wednesday, a preschool class at Lincoln Elementary baked mini bread loaves in honor of the book "The Little Red Hen," then acted out the story with animal masks.

That same day, about 15 miles away in West Jordan, 5-year-old Ashton Van Leeuwen sat at the narrow end of his family’s kitchen table in front of a laptop computer, singing along to a song about letters as animated images danced on the screen. His mother looked on.

At a glance

Reaching Utah’s kids early

So far, two early education bills have been released:

SB42, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, seeks $6 million to expand high quality classroom preschool for at-risk kids, with additional services available outside school hours.

SB148, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, would convert the pilot UPSTART, software for preschoolers to learn at home, to a permanent program. He also wants an additional $1 million to $2 million a year to expand UPSTART.

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They’re two different approaches to preschool that will be in competition for state funding this legislative session.

Despite a long-held wariness of state-funded preschool in Utah, legislative leaders seem to finally agree that early education is key to helping kids succeed. The Legislature’s Education Task Force recently recommended supporting early childhood education programs for at-risk kids.

The question is, Which programs?

Proponents of classroom preschool models say they help kids develop emotionally, socially and academically. Supporters of the software approach say it prepares kids for kindergarten while allowing them to stay at home longer.

At least three Republican lawmakers will tackle the issue this year, proposing three solutions.

Upgrade for UPSTART? » Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, will ask lawmakers to add at least $1 million to $2 million to existing funding for UPSTART, a software program for use at home. Now in its fifth year of state support, it received $2.2 million for this school year.

An independent evaluation of its third year found UPSTART kids performed, over the course of a year, about two to three times better on early literacy tests than kids who didn’t use it.

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Waterford Institute, which developed it, recently won a federal $11.5 million Investing in Innovation grant to help expand UPSTART to rural Utah.

But that money won’t cover expanding the program along the Wasatch Front, which is why Adams wants more cash. The program is free to families.

About 1,500 Utah kids are using UPSTART, and another 3,700 have already pre-registered for next school year — an upswing in demand that will require more state dollars, said Claudia Miner, UPSTART director at Waterford.

"We consistently have a waiting list, year over year," said Diane Weaver, marketing director with Waterford. "Utah families are ready to see this program expand."

Ashton’s mom, Vivien Van Leeuwen, said her oldest son, now 7, started kindergarten at about a first-grade level thanks to UPSTART. Her younger son, Ashton, began reading within weeks of starting UPSTART, which he uses about 25 to 30 minutes a day, she said.

"We were just shocked at how much he was learning, and I also loved that he was doing it on his own," Van Leeuwen said. She has sent her kids to traditional preschool as well, for socialization.

Allisen Smith, on the other hand, said she started her oldest child on UPSTART because her family couldn’t afford traditional preschool. The Syracuse mom liked that it customized lessons to her daughter’s needs.

"It repeated what was necessary for her," Smith said. "I thought that was fantastic because I know there’s no way I could have taught that to her, and I know in a class the teacher would not have had patience going over it and over it again."

Classrooms for at-risk kids? » Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, wants $6 million to expand high-quality preschool in classrooms for at-risk kids.

Under his SB42, participating schools also would have computer labs with programs available to families outside school hours. They would contract with private groups, where available, to provide preschool services.

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