Utah offers an online preschool that boosts literacy. But some Latino families, wary of sharing information with the government, are reluctant to enroll their kids.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kiara Santana, 3, works on a computer program from Waterford UPSTART, an online preschool, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018.

Adrian Zavala Santana was practically nonverbal when he turned three and aged out of state services that offer help when a child is developing slowly.

He could say just 20 words in Spanish, his mother says, and he didn’t know any English. Doctors wondered if he was on the autism spectrum. After ushering Adrian’s two older sisters into gifted classes, his parents weren’t sure their son would even be able to go to a mainstream public school as another year passed with little progress.

Now, Rocio Andino Santana says, her son has just begun full-day kindergarten. Adrian brings home packets of homework, finishes them, and asks for more. He is speaking both English and Spanish like any other bilingual 5-year-old.

Enrolling Adrian in Waterford UPSTART, a state-sponsored online preschool, marked his turning point, Andino-Santana and her husband Nahaman Andino said through a translator on Friday. But an audit this year left researchers worried that the state-of-the-art, customized curriculum was not reaching enough of the 4-year-olds the state wanted to target: those who live in rural areas, or have families who are economically at-risk, or who don’t speak English at home.

A number of those kids are missing out on UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow) because of their parents’ rising fears of sharing personal information with the state in an age when even U.S. citizens are being targeted for deportation, said state Sen. Luz Escamilla, who has advocated funds for the program.

“They may be holding back from registering their kids because they believe that information will be shared with the federal government,” Escamilla said Friday at the Andino-Santana home in Salt Lake City. “Because this is through the state, that information is protected. We’re not an immigration enforcement agency. … We’re trying to make sure families are aware they don’t have to worry about sharing information. Right now there’s a lot of trust problems.”

As Waterford employees have networked through churches, health care providers, community events and door-to-door campaigns, they have found rising reluctance in recent months to sign up for UPSTART — even though it is free and provides computers and internet connections to families who can’t afford them, said Waterford’s outreach director, Isaac Troyo.

“What we found this year is there’s a greater apprehension toward wanting to take advantage of this resource because of the political climate,” Troyo said.

Pre-kindergarten education is well-known as a powerful equalizer, Escamilla said, with benefits lasting throughout a child’s schooling. A state review last year showed UPSTART “significantly” boosted kindergarten literacy for kids who participated, compared to kids who didn’t.

But as the program’s reputation has ascended, it has attracted the interest of wealthier parents. Children from low-income families filled less than half of UPSTART’s 14,000 slots this year, according to an audit released in July; just four years ago, low-income kids made up 71 percent of its enrollment.

“With the significant growth in students in families with no restriction of income, it is not clear if the purpose of the program is for students in low-income families,” auditors wrote.

Troyo said the shifting numbers correspond with the program’s growth overall, from about 1,600 students in 2010 to about 15,000 in the newly started school year. State funding for UPSTART has risen accordingly, from $1.7 million in 2010 to nearly $9.8 million budgeted for 2019.

“One of the things I’ve asked now is to understand, what are the barriers to making every four-year-old have access to a program like this?” Escamilla said.

There are about 50,000 4-year-olds in Utah, she said. Each enrollee in UPSTART costs about $800, Troyo said. Children from targeted families are guaranteed slots, but there is a cap on enrollment for kids from higher-income, English-speaking and urban families.

In the Andino-Santana household, the digital preschool has become a tradition. The couple’s older daughters, 9 and 11, enrolled soon after the state began to fund it, and have been given accelerated coursework in elementary school. Their youngest child, 3-year-old Kiara, began playing along with Adrian’s account last year when she was 2. On Friday, she quietly clicked through screen after screen of clothing vocabulary, choosing pants and shirts for a cartoon cat. Her mother said she recently was tested at her brick-and-mortar preschool, where teachers identified her reading level as “advanced.”

“I’m completely blown away,” Rocio Andino-Santana said.

UPSTART enrollment for 2018-2019 is open until October 31. For more information, call (800) 669-4533 or visit www.waterfordupstart.org.