Washington County School District developed and implemented a preschool program for children living in poverty to help close the learning gap before they even entered kindergarten. Among other technologies and techniques, they used Waterford Early Learning to teach preschoolers early reading, math and science.
In Washington County School District, located in southwestern Utah, about half of the schools are Title I schools with a high percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Children in Title I schools consistently scored lower academically than the schools with children from higher-income families. Students faced a significant achievement gap and were unable to catch up with their peers.
Challenges and Needs
The achievement or learning gap between children with differing socioeconomic statuses is a growing problem in the United States. Children from low-income families or families living in poverty simply do not have the same resources as other children. Many parents don’t have time to read to or teach children because they are working multiple jobs.
“Kids coming into non—Title I schools know some of their letters, know some of their sounds, colors, shapes–skills that you normally learn before you come to kindergarten,” said Kathy Petersen, Title I director for Washington County School District. “But few of the children in Title I schools were coming in with that knowledge.”
In the past, Washington County School District used aids and tutors for children who were struggling; however, they found these options did not work. Children were still unable to catch up with their peers on the skills they needed to succeed in school.
Additionally, teachers found that low-income students were less likely to have experiences that would help them expand their vocabularies and understanding of the world. For example, many students had never seen a bus or a train and did not know what they were; this put them at a disadvantage for understanding vocabulary and making connections in their learning.
Washington County School District needed to implement a change to reach the children who were entering kindergarten already at a disadvantage. So the district created a preschool program specifically for Title I schools and children from low-income households. Students attend the preschool four days a week for two hours at a time. The students rotate through different segments.
First, all students meet together for group instruction from the teacher, which includes discussing a calendar with the children, as well as a “Question of the Day.” Second, children are divided into smaller groups of four. These groups are given lessons at “teacher tables” and “work tables” and provide more personalized instruction for the children. Finally, children rotate between centers where they focus on dramatic play, motor skills, and smaller lessons that are tied to the topics of the whole-group lessons.
Children use a variety of technologies, including Waterford Early Learning. Each child spends 15 minutes a day on the adaptive curriculum software, which allows them to move at their own pace through scaffolded lessons. Teachers have access to progress reports and create lesson plans based on what topics students need more time to understand and master.
The primary focus with this preschool is reading as the key to success in lifelong learning. Students who enter kindergarten without basic knowledge about the alphabet, vocabulary and sounds struggle to keep up with other children. Setting a foundation for reading in preschool is one way to help children succeed throughout their education.
The most striking result is that after Washington County School District implemented their unique preschool model, only 11 percent of Title I preschool students require any remediation in kindergarten. Children who received one year of Waterford instruction entered kindergarten equipped with the necessary building blocks to succeed with their peers who would have previously been much farther ahead.
Teachers also found that students learned quickly and were easily able to navigate the computer software and tools, despite some fears that children may struggle with using the technology. Not only did the children use the technology with ease, but the children also often expressed that using the personalized learning technology was their favorite part of the day.
The Waterford curriculum was especially helpful because it differentiates lessons from child to child. Petersen said, “There are lots of apps that are fun and colorful, but the Waterford software clearly has an advantage over any of those apps because it addresses the specific needs of each child.”
Both teachers and students benefited from Waterford. Teachers were able to easily monitor their students’ progress and plan their whole-group lessons accordingly, and the students caught up to their peers.