Closing the Early Ed Literacy Gap Takes Parents, Partnerships, and Access

If universal literacy is the goal, we must partner together to break down barriers to early education.

GUEST COLUMN | by LaTasha Hadley

The momentum is building. Education experts realize children must be able to read by third grade. More than half of all states, (28 to be exact), have passed laws that require or allow schools to hold students back if they aren’t meeting proficiency requirements at the beginning or end of third grade.

There’s good reason behind the flurry of legislative action. According to research, one in six children who are not reading proficiently by third grade will not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times higher than their peers. The news is even more dire for economically disadvantaged children. If a child has spent at least a year in poverty and is not reading at grade level, the drop-out rate rises to 26 percent.

But retaining students is not without its own drawbacks. It’s expensive and may come with academic and other consequences for students. It seems clear, then, that rather than waiting for kids to fail, we should provide support to our youngest learners so they begin school ready to learn on day one.

‘…a solution for these exact challenges: a personalized, early learning program focusing on early literacy, numeracy, and STEM concepts.’

Nita Thompson, executive director of the Mississippi Head Start Association, put a more positive spin on it recently, saying, “When we get children engaged in learning at an early age, the probability of positive educational and academic outcomes is greater.”

Recently, my organization took part in a state-wide partnership with Thompson and The Mississippi Head Start Association. We wanted to see first-hand the challenges these students and their families face, and find strategies to overcome them.

Lack of Access to High-Quality Pre-K

One of the first and most daunting challenges, both for individual parents and society at large, is the lack of access to high-quality preschool programs. This affects millions of children every year.

“Opportunity is not always equal,” Thompson says. “Abilities may be equal but opportunities are not, so Head Start provides opportunity and access to families that might not have the resources to access high-quality education and care for their children or might not even be in an area where it’s available.”

In some rural areas, there are not enough students to support a pre-K center, leaving parents to prepare alone. And in urban settings, there may be great preschool options in a child’s neighborhood—but that’s no guarantee they’ll be able to take advantage of them. Many economically disadvantaged students can’t afford enrollment fees, and low-cost options fill up fast. Parents may also lack transportation or the flexibility in their schedule to get their kids to school.

One reason MHSA decided to partner with us is because we provide a solution for these exact challenges: a personalized, early learning program focusing on early literacy, numeracy, and STEM concepts. If the family can’t afford a computer or internet access, we provide them at no cost.


How Does Waterford UPSTART Work?

Waterford UPSTART provides four-year-old children access to the highest form of academic support in their early education at no cost to participants: personalized family education and coaching, a new computer and Internet if needed, and adaptive educational software


It sounds amazing, right? That fact can be to our detriment at times. Some parents ask, “What’s the catch?” They think an organization offering an early education solution like this sounds too good to be true. That’s why this partnership with MHSA has been so wonderful. Head Start is well known and respected in the community, so when they vouch for us, parents know we are the real deal.

Parental Empowerment

An empowered parent is an involved parent. Any loving parent wants to support their child’s academic development and success, but not all of them know how. If you give them the tools they need to help their children, parents will feel empowered to take over the role of their child’s first teacher. That’s exactly the goal of the partnership between Waterford UPSTART and Head Start.

“Head Start is an early childhood education program that really focuses on family development,” according to Thompson. “We are getting children ready to go to school, but we’re also about helping families set goals for their children and themselves so they can really improve the quality of their lives.”

We share that whole-family vision of early education with Head Start. Getting to know each family’s unique makeup and circumstances is vital. Many parents we meet are working two or three jobs. They feel like they simply don’t have time to work with their children. Others may not have been the most successful students themselves and feel they aren’t equipped to be their child’s first teacher. Through this partnership, these parents learned that, no matter their schedule or education level, they have the ability to help their child learn.

The UPSTART curriculum is designed to be used 15–20 minutes per day, five days a week. To help families stay on track, they are assigned a Family Education Liaison (FEL.) These parent coaches stick with a family throughout the entire program. So if a parent has a question or concern, or if their child experiences a setback, they can call their FEL to get the guidance they need.

In the end, our pilot partnership with Mississippi Head Start saw 692 young children participate, preparing them for their first day of school.

“The opportunity to have this home-based literacy support program—it’s just wonderful,” says Thompson. “Our parents have given us wonderful feedback and it’s not only promoted literacy and language, it’s improved relationships so families have the time to sit down and talk, to sort of relax and really bond. And that, I think, is one of the added benefits to this whole piece.”

LaTasha Hadley is the director of UPSTART in Mississippi. She graduated from Head Start as a child and is a former preschool teacher in MS. Waterford UPSTART delivers computer-adaptive instruction at home alongside personalized support from Family Education Liaisons, who monitor progress and empower parents as their child’s first teachers. Waterford.org is a 501(c)(3) organization. Write to: latashahadley@waterford.org

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