The New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department, in collaboration with the Public Education Department, is kicking off the summer with a lofty goal: to get thousands of 4-year-olds primed for kindergarten by May 2022.
They’re turning to digital learning.
A new partnership between the two state agencies and a Utah-based education nonprofit, Waterford.org, is set to bring supplementary digital learning to all public school districts with pre-kindergarten classes — about 85 percent of them — through a program called Waterford Upstart.
Education leaders gathered Monday at the Drury Plaza Hotel in downtown Santa Fe to announce the initiative.
“What you find, if you talk to a kindergarten teacher, is that when children walk in on that first day of school, they are on all different levels,” Kim Fischer, a spokeswoman for Waterford.org, said in an interview.
Some kids, she said, might be reading already, while others might not be able to identify their colors.
“We are reaching out to the children who may be behind and helping them get up to speed,” Fischer added. “Children, even at that age, understand that they are behind. They can sense it right away and you never want that child’s confidence to go down.”
The Waterford Upstart program consists of 15-minute lessons each school day that use animations, songs and games to teach preschool-age children about numbers, letters and other cognitive skills. The program also features social-emotional lessons and digital books.
In one lesson, a quartet of animated seagulls on a colorful tropical island sing that “zero is a big round hole” and count bananas to demonstrate the difference between zero and other numbers. In another lesson that’s more interactive, children practice tracing the capital A on their computer screen.
The Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have appropriated $300,000 for Upstart, primarily from the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.
According to Micah McCoy, a spokesman for the early childhood department, interest from 25 private pre-K centers statewide could bring more than 500 additional kids onboard.
In tribal communities, 98 program spots already are filled, he wrote in an email.
It will be up to each district how the program is used — whether it will be provided as an option during computer time for preschoolers in the classroom or something parents and guardians do with their children at home.
Some pre-K students in Santa Fe Public Schools got a taste of Upstart last summer as part of Waterford’s Upstart Summer Learning Path program, made available through the company’s multimillion-dollar investment in several states, including New Mexico.
Of the 500 New Mexico preschoolers who participated, the average student began kindergarten at a readiness level usually not demonstrated until halfway through the school year, according to Waterford.org.
Santa Fe Public Schools now offers Upstart as an option for children at classroom learning stations.
“It’s not our sole curriculum. We still are a play-based program,” said Patricia Azuara, the district’s early childhood coordinator. “Waterford is a good supplement for our literacy.”
The program also aids parents who are working with their children to help prepare them for kindergarten.
Families have had an increased role in pre-K students’ education during the COVID-19 pandemic — a reality that has continued, Azuara said.
“When the pandemic started, we knew that it was not going to be just last school year and that’s it, but it was something we were going to face this school year,” she added.
Through Upstart, families will have access to information about their child’s learning progress and a mentorship app that will help them navigate Upstart, which is compatible with computers, including Chromebooks and tablets, but not smartphones.
“We want to have that available for families at home,” Azuara said. “Parents can know where the students are at and use those resources to work with them at home.”
Santa Fe Public Schools serves 321 traditional pre-K students. While students are not identified as English language learners until kindergarten, 108 of those students’ families have indicated they speak another language at home.
Upstart is in English but features Spanish instructions for Spanish-speaking families.
“The way we see it in the district is that even though it is not reinforcing their first language,” Azuara said. “It is providing skills that they need to learn their second language in a fun and appropriate way.”
Fischer said research is underway in Nevada about the efficacy of Upstart for students learning English.