eSN Special Report: Closing Gaps Early

Sandy was the executive director of elementary education for Marion County when she led the implementation of Waterford Early Learning throughout the district’s elementary schools. Now, as principal of Stanton-Weirsdale Elementary School, she says she can see the software “impacting kids’ lives from a day-to-day perspective.”

The research-based software is a computer-adaptive program that teaches reading, math, and science to students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Children can work through the software independently, so it can be used either at home or at school, said Benjamin Heuston, president of the Waterford Institute.

The program uses music, animation, games, and other interactive elements that can draw students in—but “we do so in a thoughtful and developmentally appropriate way,” Heuston said.

He added: “We’ve found that kids are using our software in their home setting 50 percent more than we’re asking them to; that’s a signal to us that we’re on the right track with the engagement piece.”

Closing gaps early on is critical to a child’s development, Heuston said, because “children who can’t read fail publicly in front of their peers and their teacher … 180 days of the year.” They start to believe that reading is something they can’t do. But it doesn’t mean they can’t read, he said; it simply means “they haven’t had the support they need to be successful.”

The psychologist Keith Stanovich has argued that children often follow a self-reinforcing path when they’re learning to read, Heuston said. Those who experience success early on develop confidence, which motivates them to work even harder—while those who struggle tend to shy away from reading, which further compounds the problem.

Stanovich called this the “Matthew effect,” and if it’s true, then “getting started on the right path becomes a determinant to a child’s success,” Heuston said.

Waterford Early Learning is designed to take a child from having no language experience to becoming an independent reader. “We found that took about three years of content to accomplish,” Heuston said.

The software’s makers recommend that students use it for about 15 minutes a day in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, and 30 minutes a day for grades 1 and 2. As a student works through the program, it “builds a model for that child, remediating on areas that are needed while progressing quickly through areas being mastered,” he said.

Keys to Stanton-Weirsdale’s success

At Stanton-Weirsdale Elementary, success begins with “high-quality teachers,” Sandy said.

Dennis Pierce

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