Virtual pre-K shows promise as lawmakers plan study

(WISH Photo)

NEW ALBANY, Ind. (WISH) — State lawmakers may soon be deciding on an alternative to traditional pre-K that one Indiana school district is already testing.

The pilot district is the New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation. Caden Eurton is one of its students.

He’s like any other 5-year-old who enjoys to play, and pouts when he’s had enough.

But he stands apart when it comes to education. As he enters kindergarten, he’s already mastered certain books.

It’s not just reading. Caden knows how to add and subtract, too.

“The other day, he had cornbread,” Kimberly Eurton said. “He likes cornbread, and my husband asked him, ‘How was your day?’ He said, ‘Great! I had two whole cornbreads. Well, actually I had four because I cut them in half,'” Kimberly Eurton continued.

Skills he was far from last summer: “He didn’t know any letter sounds,” Kimberly Eurton said. “He was pretty basic.”

That all changed after he spent nine months using a virtual pre-K program called Upstart.

Upstart is a virtual pre-K program developed by a company in Utah. For 15 minutes, five days a week, Caden uses it to identify sounds and use those to find words.

Caden’s new way to learn has his parents feeling emotional. “It’s hard to put in words,” Kimberly Eurton said. “Proud. I figure it’s a blessing.”

“At that point, not being in kindergarten yet, and already being able to do that, I think, is pretty great,” Eric Eurton said.

He’s not alone. Caden was part of a pilot program developed by Waterford in a southern Indiana district. New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation educators watched as many of its future students flourished.

“The results that [Waterford] showed us were amazing,” New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation Director of Elementary Education Tony Duffy  said. “I think that kind of sold us on that it really did work.”

“These students were reading what looked like middle of first grade text with very little picture support, and doing it quite well,” said Barb Hoover, New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation District literacy coach.

The district paired with the Utah company. It offered the virtual pre-K program for free to 100 families. “What we’re going to do is try to compare those students that come in that have had this Waterford Upstart and then those that haven’t and see what the difference is,” Duffy said.

The program might be heading to other areas of Indiana. This session, lawmakers allocated $2 million for a virtual pilot.

Despite approving the spending, not all lawmakers think this will be better than traditional pre-K. “There is socialization that is so important at an early learning environment,” State Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican from Indianapolis, said.

He may have concerns, but Behning is open because it’s cheaper than traditional pre-K. Virtual pre-K costs $1,400 per student, whereas traditional pre-K can run more than $6,000. Plus the online program only requires a computer. “This was a way to at least provide some access to those counties for some sort of services,” Behning said.

For the Eurtons, the program helped Caden earn extra playtime and set him up for success well before he’ll receive his cap and gown.

“He is now not only prepared for kindergarten, he is way advanced,” Kimberly Eurton said. “If anything, I’m worried about him being bored.”

Virtual pre-K isn’t a done deal in Indiana yet. Family and Social Services Administration has to study it first.

If it determines it to be effective, the agency will decide which company to go with. The Indiana Statehouse Bureau reached out to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick. Her spokesperson said she’s waiting to see the results of the study before making a decision.

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