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Free Virtual Pre-K Program Offered To Low-Income Families Statewide For The First Time

According to early findings from Indiana's academic impact study, the pandemic significantly affected elementary school students' progress in math, and more moderately in English/language arts. (Jeanie Lindsay/IPB News)

A virtual preschool program will expand its reach in Indiana this year as it becomes available statewide for the first time. The national nonprofit behind the program is partnering with the state as COVID-19 cases rise.

Waterford Upstart is a free virtual program to help low-income kids prepare for kindergarten by providing them with a computer and internet access to receive at-home instruction in reading, science, and math.

The program used to be restricted to more rural counties, but during the 2021 legislative session, Indiana lawmakers authorized Waterford to expand statewide. 

Waterford Upstart executive director Claudia Miner said the group is now partnering with the state and more local nonprofits to connect with families.

"We sort of refer to them as trusted gatekeepers – in other words, Indiana doesn't know us, necessarily – this is the family's most precious commodity," Miner said. 

Waterford Upstart spokesperson Kim Fischer said leveraging more state and local partnerships is essential, after the nonprofit struggled to find 4-year-olds to participate in the program last winter because the pandemic forced in-person events to be canceled.

Fischer said the nonprofit is now bringing back more in-person events, to help find kids and also build community among families who use the program. 

"And so we're looking for any of these nonprofit organizations that work with these children that reach our criteria – which is 127 percent of the poverty level and below," Fischer said.

Families who participate in Upstart can also use the software for younger elementary students who may need supplemental learning support. That's especially critical as schools grapple with how to accelerate learning for children hit hardest by the pandemic. 

Miner said Waterford has the capacity to serve at least 300 families in Indiana this year.

Contact reporter Jeanie at jlindsa@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @jeanjeanielindz.