Mayor David Cardenas of Fowler wants his small city to be at the forefront of education. That’s why he spends his lunch break passing out fliers, urging families who can’t afford preschool to consider an alternative. His target audience is families with children who won’t be attending kindergarten until Fall of 2020.
“We’re here because I’m trying to bring this program, but I want to make sure it’s going to be a program for young little kids,” Cardenas says as he drives from the local senior center to the Presbyterian church to drop off a stack of fliers.
The program is called Upstart. It was developed by the Utah legislature in collaboration with a technology and education company called Waterford.org back in 2009. The pilot program in Fresno County is funded by the Audacious Project, which is the philanthropic side to TED.
Here’s how it works: Families commit to working with their child for fifteen minutes a day, five days a week on the Upstart computer program. The one year curriculum is a mix of subjects, including reading, math and science.
“I'm working hard because I know the great benefit that this represents to the parents, these young kids,” says Cardenas. “So they can be better prepared when they start their kindergarten classes at the regular age of 5, I believe. Then those kids are going to be very successful, as the statistics show that they’re way ahead.”
There are some independent studies that back Cardenas up, showing that kids who’ve participated in Upstart are more prepared for kindergarten than those who have no preschool experience. This year, Upstart will provide 200 local families with free access to the program. Cardenas wants Fowler to be well represented with at least 50 families.
So far, he’s signed up about 20, including Maggie Regalado. As she pushes her 3-year-old daughter Victoria on a swing in the city park, she says she can teach her some basic skills.
“But I know that the school system now uses computers a lot,” says Regalado. “I felt that she would be getting both ways of learning and she’d be more prepared once she starts school.”
Regalado says she’s trying to strike a balance when it comes to screen time.
“I can't tell her, ‘Victoria, put your device down,’ when mommy has it attached to her too,” Regalado says. “So, I just try to limit what she’s able to watch or not access on her tablet.”
Professor Pei-Ying Wu at Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education and Human Development says she sees Upstart’s value
“I admire their intention of helping children who don’t have access to high quality early education by providing some sort of online intervention or online instruction for them to develop their vocabulary,” Wu says.
But she says, the program doesn’t address another important facet of early education.
“The most important thing for preschoolers to learn at preschool is how to interact with others,” says Wu. “When they go to kindergarten, they have to learn how to follow the routine, how to follow the instructions, how to learn with their peers.”
An interactive social environment is not something an app can provide. Wu also wonders, will this help kids fall in love with learning?
Cardenas thinks, yes.
“It’s something that is going to serve them well when they start their kindergarten class,” says Cardenas. “At that level, kids are going to be more knowledgeable, more experienced, and I also believe they will be more self-confident.”
He’s hosting one more informational meeting this Saturday, with the hopes of giving more families who can’t pay for preschool an option that is far from traditional. The meeting will be 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Fowler Senior Center.