On this episode of Education Talk Radio, host Larry Jacobs speaks with Shannan Skidmore, a proposal consultant at Waterford, about the $14.2 million Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant awarded to expand the Waterford UPSTART program into five new states.
Shannan has taught English composition courses at Brigham Young University, and she currently works as Waterford’s proposal consultant and grant writer. Joining Shannan on this episode is Anne Brown, VP of Business Development at Waterford.
- Waterford’s grant title: “Expanding School Readiness to Rural States with Poor Preschool Access”
- How Waterford UPSTART improves school readiness, standardized test scores, parent engagement, graduation rates, and other factors
- Contact information for rural school districts to partner with Waterford UPSTART
Education Talk Radio: “Waterford Institute: A Grant to Help Underserved 4-Yr-Old Kids In School Readiness” Full Transcript
Larry Jacobs (Host, Education Talk Radio): Hi everybody. It’s October 10th, it’s 10:30 in the morning here on the East coast and we have a lovely show today for you, I truly mean that indeed we do. Because my good friends over at Waterford Institute are bringing us, besides my good friend Anne Brown who’s going to be on the show, Shannan Skidmore. Now Shannan is going to be managing, if I’m reading all this correctly, a recent Education Innovation and Research expansion grant for Waterford, who was awarded $14.2 million to help underserved four-year-old children develop school readiness. OK. Wow. Wow I feel like I’ve gone to heaven, and I guess Waterford feels the same way. This is just great. Anne’s an expert, Anne is an expert, but Shannan is an expert in managing grants. We’re going to talk all about who gave them the grant, what they’re planning to do with it etc. etc.. Things you need to know, it’s all about early literacy. Build a good foundation, build a good house. Always say that. OK and the experts are Waterford so it’s going to be a nice show, I’m looking forward to it. Which we’re going to archive at education-talkradio.org, that’s our web site, and we will tweet it out with a direct link, over at, I think we’ve already done that, over at @edutalkradio. You can follow us over there or Facebook over there. Same thing, edutalkradio. Check out ace-ed.org. Accessibility, Compliance, Equity in Education, that’s our digital magazine and it is good. The Web site is hot. We’ve put up new information all the time. We got the magazine up there plus we have all the podcasts that have to do with equity, really really good stuff. All right and so it’s ace-ed.org and please tell people about it, the more we have reading it, the happier we are and frankly so are our advertisers the lovely people who help bring the information to you. OK so it’s ace-ed.org. And without further ado, if I may, talk about equity that’s what we’re talking about here. Let’s bring on Shannan and Anne. First of all, let’s say hello to my old friend Anne, hi Anne Brown.
Anne Brown (VP of Business Development, Waterford): Hey Larry I wish we were on TV today so that you could see our two inches of brand new snow in Park City on top of our fall colors. It is amazing. I’ll shoot you a picture later today.
LJ: Please do. Actually that’s just beautiful. You know the first few snowstorms here in Maine where I live, we love them and then you can ask me again in early March and I’m ready to kill myself. OK.
AB: I’m with you.
LJ: Yeah that’s, congratulations on the first snow of the year.
AB: So yeah, but we are so excited to bring you the information on this grant. Shannan, Shannan who you’re going to introduce, is our master grant writer, our actual manager of the grant will be Dr. Claudia Miner, so I want to get that in.
LJ: Oh I had that a little bit wrong I’m sorry about that. OK.
AB: That’s OK. This all came from Shannan’s amazing grant writing work.
Shannan Skidmore (Grant Writer, Waterford): Well lots of people chipped in.
LJ: Oh Shannan, just take it all for yourself you deserve it. Just kidding. I know you want to share it. Shannan, welcome to the show, call me Larry. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
SS: Thank you. Oh I’m excited to be here. Well of course this is our favorite topic to talk about right now.
LJ: Oh it’s an incredible topic to talk about. I mean you were you were the one who wrote the documents to get the grant. All right. And the grant is, would you, let me get if I got this straight then you could fill in, was given to Waterford Institute. By the way you want to know about early literacy everybody, Waterford Institute, waterford.org. OK. Waterford Institute got $14.2 million bucks to help underserved four-year-old kids develop school readiness. I think that’s amazing. Shannon tell us about yourself. Let’s start there. Tell us what you’ve done over the years. I know a lot of people are going to want to talk to you for you to get them increased paychecks with your writing skills.
SS: Well I started my career with the Waterford Institute right out of grad school. Dr. Dusty Heuston hired me straight out of grad school and I was actually one of his original sales reps back in 1995 when his Waterford Early Learning or Waterford Early Reading program was brand new. So I went out there with, you know, we were so green we didn’t know what we are knowing, what we were doing but it was the beginning of an explosive growth period. So that was yeah that was a lot of fun. It was the very beginning of that educational technology movement. And and we were very innovative. So you know I sold the program as a sales rep and then I moved into with my background and master’s degree in English, I moved into helping customers write grants as the publishing rights of that program was taken with Pearson Digital Learning, or Pearson Education.
SS: So that’s where Anne and I met. Anne and I then began working together on a grant, kind of a grant support model, where we would help Pearson’s many customers write grants to help early literacy in their schools and districts and that was very successful. You know how much, how much was it, Anne? It was about over that time, a period of five to seven years where we help we helped win about $120 million dollars for schools. So it really was an exciting time.
LJ: I have to ask this because a lot of people talk about it. How did you learn, just by trial and error? How’d you learn to write grants as well as you do? Write for grants I should say.
SS: When I was a sales rep I saw the need, I would see, you know I wrote a couple and actually I kind of wrote on adoptions and realized wow I really love them and I really believed, I always have believed in Waterford’s mission. So I was so moved by the opportunities and you know, the idea of helping in this way. So when I first started as a grant consultant, I pretty much just went to The Grantsmanship Center and got the book and I read it. And again, I had I taught college English, I had I had a master’s degree in English, I have lots of writing experience, so I learned how to do it and then you write a couple, and get feedback. And you know, you start winning and you figure out what works and what doesn’t. So by the time you’ve read you know hundreds and thousands of grant documents, you hone those skills so I guess you could say I was self-taught.
LJ: That’s pretty good. That’s an important skill.
SS: Yeah it was fun. And I have been able to use it in lots of different contexts so it’s been, you know, I help my kids school or I help the local soccer association over the years. So, but primarily working with Pearson there were so many opportunities. And I began to expand to other products and things like that, but I’ve grown up my kids have grown up with Waterford. I really have spent a large part of my career supporting Waterford’s mission of helping children have a great start and to me, It’s been an honor.
LJ: Yeah well it is it’s an honor, it’s an honor for them to have you. Hey Anne, since I brought you on the show, why don’t you tell everybody what you do, why you’re here. What you do, and you’ve been mentioned. Anne Brown everybody, the amazing Anne Brown of Waterford.
AB: All right. All right. Well thanks Larry. So I’m the Vice President of Education and Business Development for Waterford. Like Shannan, I started my career very early with Waterford. Went through, went through the Pearson days and then I’m back home again at Waterford, honored and happy to do that. Shannan and I started really the grants model and Pearson in about 1998 I believe. And as she said, she was, she was the master I’ll be honest. But we got to do some really amazing work with some other kind of amazing people at Pearson to really you know, change the mindset and the movement of the country in some ways. On education technology and especially the use of education technology for early for early readers, early children. So we’ve been really blessed to get to stay on Dusty and Benj’s mission most of our career, it’s exciting, most of our careers…
LJ: I know Dusty and Benj would say the same thing they’ve been blessed to have you guys. And everybody who works there, I know them, you know, It’s just a great company and so well-meaning and the products are so excellent. Again everybody, waterford.org. OK. Early Learning and all right now the big thing. OK the Education Innovation Research Grant again Waterford, we’ll talk about what they’re going to do with the money in a minute, $14.2 million. OK. Shannan, who gave, who gives the money? The Education Innovation and Research Expansion Grant. Who gave the money? Where does it come from?
SS: Well it’s the EIR grant that’s kind of the short name for it. It’s from the U.S. Department of Education. And that grant which comes out of their Office of Innovation is focused or designed to provide funding to create or develop, actually all the way up through implementing, replicating, and scaling evidence-based innovations that help high-need students. And because that’s a pretty, you know, all the way from creating to scaling that’s a pretty wide sphere of activities in there, it has three tiers each with progressively higher funding levels and evidence requirements. So as an innovation moves through each tier starting with the early phase grants, it can move progressively and the initiatives or solutions that have, end up showing the most impact, the grant is intended to help them scale and support them up through the highest level of the grant which is the expansion grants, which we won. So for example the U.S. Department of Ed starts with their early phase grant which is a $4 million grant. And at that level you really can have almost startup products that research suggests will be impactful but you have fairly new innovations in this category. So that’s a really great place for new solutions that have a nice research rationale to start. Again, $4 million dollars and this year, the Department of Ed made nine awards in that category. The next level, the second level is the mid-phase grants and they fund up to $8 million over five years. But to be eligible for this funding, the applicant has to have what’s called a moderate level of evidence. So this initiative is really tied to ESSA the Every Student Succeeds Act called ESSA. It is really tied to their evidence definitions. So a moderate-leveled evidence is called, it requires to have an acquired experimental study that sounds like a mouthful but when you get down to it, it just has to be well-designed and has to have carefully matched treatment and control groups. So that that’s a much more rigorous study. And so you know, to bump up to that $8 million, you’ve got to have some real vigorous research behind it and then the top tier… Go. Go ahead.
LJ: No you go, you go. Continue
SS: OK. So that brings us to the top tier. That’s the expansion grant. That’s the grant that we were awarded, and they award up to 15 million dollars. And the department only gives one to three of these a year. So it’s really the top of the pyramid in terms of the dollar amount but also in terms of the evidence requirement even to even qualify as an applicant. To even apply you have to have strong evidence and that’s an ESSA word for a random controlled trial study, an RCT. Now, RCT’s are kind of the gold standard in the research world and our program, the UPSTART program, we have an independent RCT study showing that are you know that the school readiness program has an effect size of 0.4 which is really significant and high. So with those findings and then a well-designed grant plan, that I that I had so much help from all of the water team including Anne and Dr. Miner and Benj, Dr. Heuston, we were able to put together this great grant plan around our UPSTART program and that evidence of effectiveness to win that $14.2 million expansion grant, one of three awards given this year.
LJ: It’s astounding. And is Benj [Heuston] walking around with the $15 million in his wallet? Is he still doing that, or did he put it away somewhere?
SS: I think, I think there was a lot of celebration and everyone was really dicing out what the budget looked like as soon as we heard the award, to get the ball rolling. There’s so much buzz and excitement at Waterford.
LJ: It’s great. I’ll have the extra cheese. I don’t care if it’s a nickel more, I’m going to have the extra cheese on The Whopper. That’s all there is to it.
SS: All this money goes to the kids.
LJ: Yeah I know it does.
SS: The thing that’s unique about Waterford is we are a nonprofit. So really there’s not a lot of fluff in that budget. It really goes to the kids and to the research and the work of this grant.
LJ: Right. It’s so amazing and let’s talk about that. OK. Now that there’s the money there. OK and by the way I want to mention, you mentioned it, the UPSTART program, just everybody can look that up, Waterford, just Google it. Waterford’s UPSTART program, you’ll be amazed. Ok. Now you have the money. All right. And you won the grant with all the greatest intentions. Now what? Shannon, now what?
SS: Yeah. Now we, now we start. Well let me just start by telling you what the grand title is and that will help me talk about what our grant plan is. So, our title of the grant is Expanding School Readiness to Rural States with Poor Preschool Access. And then we we have a subtitle called The UPSTART Great Plain TASK Force, and TASK is an acronym for Taking All to Success in Kindergarten. So it’s kind of a mouthful, but that is like it shows what we’re really doing in our grant. So when you break it down, you know all 50 pages and the very complex project management plan that our winning grant featured, there’s four key elements. So the first element, and let me just say that all of this is designed in a very capacity-building approach and I think you’ll see that as I go through the four elements. So the first element is we are we are creating this Great Plain TASK, all caps, Force. And this is a consortium of state educational agencies and school districts across five key states. Idaho, which starts in the intermountain west and then goes up to the Great Plains states in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota. And the focus is on advancing early childhood education priorities, generally, not just around UPSTART, but generally across this region and in local schools and communities. So with that collaboration we really are focusing for you know a broader transformation in these states. You may say, why these five states? Well if you look at a map of the United States and you know, there’s color-coded maps which show how many kids are attending, are being served in state preschool. These five states are in the zero to very little category. They just have not been able to secure, I mean they have had starts in IDEA preschool through the federal dollars but they don’t have any state funds specifically for a center-based, traditional center-based preschool.
SS: And so we’re really going into these schools where there are large populations of underserved rural children and we’re attempting to serve these very difficult to serve populations because in these states as you know, they’re expansive, they’re rugged, they’re rural. The majority of these of the districts in the states are rural and and it’s just more expensive to serve kids when you have geography and distance affecting services like that. So that’s some of….
LJ: I have to ask, since brought this up that those are the five Western states, it just struck me so I was mentioning this on the show yesterday. OK. Underserved kids, and my wife used to do a lot of work with the Bureau of Indian Education, BIE. Are you going to work with, when we say underserved kids a lot of the Indian schools if I may, are underserved, are they going to be be be part of this too or is it going to be, cause they’re federal school districts as opposed to state school districts, are they going to be involved in this too?
SS: Yes absolutely. In fact we are we have already been doing some piloting in South Dakota with I believe it was the Rosebud Reservation with Native American children. As you know in states like all five of these states, they have a much higher population of Native American students than really anywhere else in the country. South Dakota that’s the number one minority group. So we do plan to be, we plan to be working with the state and the superintendents and the school districts that serve these children. And you know we’re still determining the exact layout but we did receive some early support that we were able to include in our grant from schools serving those school districts. Which in fact I was just, Waterford just had a summit, well it’s called an Executive Briefing where customers from all over the country came to Salt Lake City for a couple of days. And I sat next to a kindergarten teacher and a preschool teacher from the Solen School District in North Dakota. It was so fun to talk to them just briefly and they were on the reservation.
LJ: Wow, it’s so hard.
SS: They were so excited.
LJ: Bob Barker, the guy from The Price is Right grew up on an Indian reservation there.
SS: Oh I didn’t know that. But…
LJ: Yeah his mom was an Indian, his mom was a teacher at an Indian school.
SS: Wow. Yeah. Well, as a young sales rep I worked with a lot of Native American reservation systems in the state of Washington and that was one of my favorite things was to go into those schools and and work with those children and see the change that could take place when they when they have these resources, when they have the Waterford resources.
LJ: Oh my god, it’s like day and night. And let me, I have to ask. Again, you have the money, you’re working with the school districts. I don’t, I’m just going to ask you it this way and you can refine it. OK. Is the idea to take your wonderful and It is wonderful, It is wonderful, I sound like Donald Trump it is wonderful, I promise you it’s wonderful. The UPSTART program OK. It’s great. I feel like him right now. But seriously, is the goal to take what’s proven and it is proven, the UPSTART program to put that into all of those places? Is that the goal of it? Help me here.
SS: Yes to expand and scale this program. As you know, the UPSTART program is a statewide initiative in Utah and has proven to have that impact even though even when scaled statewide. So what we’re planning to do is to take the UPSTART program, so that’s the second part of our grant. The first part with the TASK force and then the second part is taking UPSTART as our school-readiness model to these under or four-year-olds and families in these rural geographies across these five Great Plains TASK Force states, I can just call them. And this will drive. Go ahead.
LJ: All right I will. OK. Anne, do me a favor. Since we’re talking about it, can you define UPSTART for everybody that wonderful Waterford program?
LJ: By the way everybody I have talked to UPSTART users, everybody listening, in many states. Utah and Mississippi come immediately to mind. Okay. And this just works, early literacy, early learning, okay it’s just Waterford’s UPSTART program. That said, okay, it’s not just in Utah is my point is everywhere okay but Utah really has done a magnificent job with it and now, Anne is going to tell you what UPSTART is just so we can get that definition out there. Anne.
AB: Yeah. So just quickly, so in the state of Utah we’ve been working with them for about ten years creating this at-home school readiness program. We currently serve about a third of the four-year-olds in the state there is about 45,000 total in the state and we serve about 15,000 of those a year. And what we do with UPSTART is, we put, we recruit the children into the program, so we go find the four-year-olds and then we, and their families, and then we provide them with everything they need to become academically ready for kindergarten. So that includes the Waterford software being used in the home. But we also provide the device if the child needs it, a Chromebook, and we provide internet if the child needs that or if the family needs that. And I think the thing that makes us very different and impactful is we also support the families. So when the family first comes in, we teach them about the program, we teach them how to use the software, we pre-assess the children so we have a baseline for where they’ve started, and then throughout the year, the families have weekly contacts with with a coach we call them EEA’s or Early Education Advocates. So these coaches work with the families every week live, you know phone calls, the personal relationship, if they, we support 35 languages. I mean well, we actually can support any language but this last year we supported 35 languages. So we work very heavily with refugee families, we work with low income families, and thats all been in the state of Utah. And then over the past two years through some philanthropy and some other funding we’ve been able to expand into about 10 other states into pilots. We’ve got two other states that have provided legislative funding to do this, to have this program for their children and the results are really off the charts. I mean the end result of UPSTART families and UPSTART children is that through third party research, we’ve been able to show that if you are an UPSTART child as a four-year-old, you continue to outperform your peers in reading, math, and science across DIBELS, the BADER, the Brigance, and the Utah SAGE test and we’re, and we continue to see similar results nationwide, or you know all the places that we’re serving. And then another great piece of it is as parents come in at the end, we post, or as children come in to graduate, of which we graduate about 90 percent of the children who enter the program, so they have to meet benchmarks in order to graduate. And when they graduate, Mom and Dad go in and take a survey while the child is having their post assessment and our survey results for parents are that you know ninety-nine percent think its good for their children, 100 percent say they’d recommend it for other family members, that it was, you know, that it was appropriate, it was on grade level that it was just the right thing for their kids. They have about 20 survey questions and we all score in that 97 to 100 percent area even when we’re, even when we’re surveying big numbers of families like 13,000 families, we have amazing results from that. So, that’s UPSTART.
LJ: It doesn’t surprise me, it shouldn’t surprise anybody who listens to the show. But I’ll tell you, talk about something that works ok, and that must be the, if I may, the rationale of all this, that made this grant stand out to the Department of Education, the fact that you have the research that it works. And if we can just get it to more kids, it’s going to work for that many more kids, right Shannan? Was that it? Is that the key?
SS: Well it’s scaled. Yeah. As Anne talked about, it’s going into these other states. What we’ve found is that because we have, we’ve carefully defined the program and tested it so well over the 10 years that we’ve been in Utah, it scales with high fidelity. And when you can, and you know that’s been a challenge in early education, you know there’s been a lot of good programs that are good in one location but then when you try and scale it to a larger, a lot of state preschool programs struggle with it. They don’t, they can’t maintain that level of efficacy. So we’re seeing these results as we scale into new locations, new populations, and we test it. And the other thing that Anne kind of alluded to is with this kind of tech, well I like to call it tech-assisted, but human powered learning model is it’s totally turnkey. It is easy for the collaborative partners we work with to implement because Waterford really does the recruiting, handles the support and works with the assessment. And so it comes in as a turnkey model, so it’s easy to implement, it scales with fidelity, and then we can offer it about a fourth of the cost of a traditional site-based program. So it’s extremely affordable and scalable and that enables us to hurdle most of the really difficult preschool access barriers that are especially difficult in rural states. Things like distance and geography and transportation. And then in those states, they’re conservative states, tax-averse, there’s just not funding. There hasn’t been funding in the past and we hope that as we can work in these states that we can help you know hurdle those barriers so that we can serve these children.
LJ: Exactly, and let me make a little point on that everybody. You just made a little point there. You know you said the conservative states are tax-averse so they don’t have the funding, but the money that’s going to make all the difference in the world to them from this grant, OK, is coming from the federal government. When the federal government does not have a retail store it depends on taxes. OK. That’s the way taxes work. They need to go back and help the people who are paying them. OK and good schools depend on taxes so yeah, go ahead.
SS: Right, right. And that all factors in I think you know it’s a lot of the way that funding is prioritized in these states. But that’s why we’re approaching this grant with a very capacity-building leadership, starting with our TASK force and the collaboration and then the third part of it, you know, we have the UPSTART program where we’re implementing those. But then we have the third part that Anne’s really in charge of which is the leadership development. We are partnering with the AASA, the National School Superintendents Association. So in partnering with them, and Anne can talk more about it, but at a high level the grant is allowing us to provide scholarships for these rural superintendents to join what we call the AASA Early Learning Rural Cohort. This builds up a program that AASA and Waterford have been doing for a couple years now, where it’s a series of capacity-building experiences and trainings to become better early childhood education leaders. So we’re trying to build capacity so that they understand the importance of early education, what are the key drivers and support that that really helps bring outcomes. How can you collaborate within your community and prioritize early learning because it has such a high return on investment.
LJ: If you prioritize early learning, you’re going to have much better time all the way along. Anne, you want to talk more about that? AASA.
AB: Yeah, so Larry we’ve been on before and had an opportunity to talk about the cohort, I think we had Mort on with this one time. But it is, it’s you know we’re we’re going to actually have our regular Early Learning Cohort meeting this will be our fourth or fifth one, will be happening next week. But what we do is we really bring the leadership of early childhood in the country together to share, to share resources and information to make sure that the superintendents are you know aware of early childhood become that conduit of success in their communities. So for instance next week, we have Dr. Deborah Bergeron. We have, she’s the national head of Headstart. We’ve got the NAEYC and we’ve got the Warren Buffett Institute for the Superintendent’s Center for Early Childhood. We’ve got the Omidyar Foundation, we’ve got a couple of senators coming to speak, but we’re really helping them on, and this is far down in the cohort you know, but for this next cohort we’re really helping them begin the advocacy work and action into early childhood. And so we want to do that same thing for the rural superintendents in these states, of which we’ve never had any of these states have superintendents attend our cohort. So I think the information that they’re going to really welcome and will be able to do it in this…
LJ: Oh, they’ll love it. When is this going to take place?
AB: So we’ll start them, we’ll probably start next spring with them we’ll start announcing them and working them, well, today. Right? Getting them started. Yeah but we’ll actually do these cohorts in those states so that they’re building a coalition of early childhood informed and active superintendents.
LJ: I think it’s great and that’s going to pay off so well for these rural school districts because I’ll tell you I remember talking a few years ago now and I can’t remember the gentleman’s name. He was he was an interview I did with the superintendent of a little town in western South Dakota it was called Beulah, South Dakota. OK. And I think he told me he’s been looking for three years for an English teacher. Because who is going to move to Beulah. Yeah. You know the challenges they face are unbelievable. OK. But every kid there, and I’m just using Beulah as the example because I remember that gentleman who was a hell of a nice guy. OK. You know, the challenges they face are amazing and you know, you look at western North Dakota or South Dakota wherever it was. I mean it’s just, it’s so rural and so spread out and you guys are doing just the right thing. That’s all this is going to be so helpful to those districts and those superintendent.
AB: And I’m excited, I’m excited to bring it to them. You know we’re not asking them to fly to New York, or New Orleans, or L.A., or Orlando or whatever, we’re going to bring it to them, to their region and build that coalition right there. So I’m excited about that.
LJ: I think it’s just absolutely wonderful. I really do. We got to go. Ladies this is wonderful you’re like Santa Claus, you’re like the double Santa Claus of Waterford.
SS: Thank you so much.
AB: Well thanks for having us, and thanks for letting us be on to talk about it.
LJ: I think, I think it’s just great. OK. And actually let me ask you this before we go. If there are rural districts in those states out west listening, alright, how should they get in touch with you or how does that work? Anne, just say, how does that work?
AB: Yeah. You know if somebody hears this and they want to just reach out to AASA or put EIR-AASA in the subject line and firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get them the information. It’ll be going out in the next week or two to everyone but if they want it right now, we’d love to share with them.
LJ: Yeah that’s great. Thank you. You guys are doing great work. I’m telling you look like Santa Claus all year long. Thank you Waterford. Thank you Shannan. Thank you Anne. OK.
SS: Alright, bye bye.
LJ: Have a great day. Enjoy yourselves, enjoy that snow, Anne.
AB: Thanks. Bye.
LJ: Bye bye. Ok. What can I say, Waterford.org. UPSTART. Check it out. waterfordupstart.org. Unbelievable. The money is coming to those rural states out west. They’re going to have great success with this. UPSTART is just wonderful. I’m so glad they’re getting it to more and more kids. It works. All right. We’re going to archive at education-talkradio.org, tweet over at @edutalkradio. I’m Larry Jacobs. This is PreK-12 Education Talk Radio. Thanks so much for listening. Hope you enjoyed yourself.