Commentary: Utah education partner experiences ‘audacious’ growth

When the TED organization claims your nonprofit has the ability to change the world, you want everyone to know about it! Hence the reason for this op-ed. I am the public relations manager for Waterford UPSTART, and this spring, we were one of eight nonprofit organizations recognized as a TED Audacious Project. This philanthropic team believes our early education nonprofit can help close the learning gap for children entering kindergarten nationwide.

Waterford UPSTART started 10 years ago when the state Legislature partnered with Waterford.org. The goal: to bring early education to 4- and 5-year-olds who do not have a pre-K option. The program is used in the home, empowering parents to become a child’s first educator. A personal coach provides activities for parents that coincide with 15 minutes of personalized software use five days a week. For the families who cannot afford computers or internet service, those are provided at no cost. Every year the project has grown, and right now we are planning to register 19,400 children this fall, well over a third of all Utah 4-year-olds! It’s truly a Utah success story.

Every year, The Utah Legislature and The Utah State Board of Education (USBE) hires third-party research firms to make sure Waterford UPSTART is effective. That research shows children who use Waterford UPSTART the year before kindergarten outperform Utah state averages on standardized tests in first through fourth grades. And gains from the project continue into the fourth grade. That undeniable data has led other states to give the project a try. Pilot programs are happening in 15 states across America right now, which means the success Utah championed is now helping children across the country.

At Waterford UPSTART, our mission is to help children, so we were surprised by a February article in The Salt Lake Tribune which referenced an audit. We are proud of our efforts to be transparent in our operations, so we want to address that article. It reported auditors’ initial concerns that Waterford UPSTART and the Utah State Board of Education were still calculating records for 3,000 participants.

To set the record straight:

Just days after the article published, during a Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, the USBE and the State Auditor discussed that audit. (Listen to public audio here.) During that meeting, William Maguire, the financial senior auditor, said, "We have not identified any phantom students, or that is any students that were fictitiously created by the contractor [Waterford UPSTART]." The Legislature has since changed how children are counted to avoid this issue in the future. State Auditor John Dougall also suggested Waterford UPSTART be audited only once every three years because the organization is not a risk.

We have one goal at Waterford UPSTART: to prepare all children for kindergarten. I have personally had the honor of meeting Waterford UPSTART families across the country and hearing their stories of success. I’ve seen children who are using Waterford UPSTART in conjunction with pre-K or Head Start, while others are working with their parents alone. No matter the setting, all of them walk into their first day of kindergarten more confident and ready to learn.

Kim Fischer | Waterford UPSTART

Kim Fischer is the public relations manager for Waterford UPSTART. In 2018, while working in TV news, she was recognized as an Anne Freimuth Child Advocate of the year for her work in educating Utahns about childhood trauma.

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