FARGO - A Utah-based education company is eyeing North Dakota to be part of a pilot program to provide free, at-home preschool service to rural areas.

Earlier this month, Waterford of Sandy, Utah, received a $14 million education and innovation research grant from the U.S. Department of Education to bring its UPSTART program to North Dakota. Waterford is a nonprofit education company that researches and creates programs that blend personalized learning and technology.

UPSTART Chief Operating Officer Claudia Miner said the program would serve 200 North Dakota students in the first year, which would begin fall 2019. In the second year, 400 students would be served.

"We are very interested in North Dakota because education leaders there are faced with significant access issues for their rural youngest learners, and UPSTART is designed to overcome those," Miner said.

Children who are a year away from entering kindergarten will be eligible for the program. UPSTART plans to provide eligible families with a computer or internet access if they don't have it. Other children in the home can have access to the program, as well as preschoolers.

"That way it is kind of a family affair," Miner said.

The program would require students to spend 15 minutes per day, five days a week, doing online coursework. The course also provides a coach for each family and additional tools for parents to help the students learn.

Miner said the 15-minute daily requirement is far less than the recommended screen time limit of one hour per day suggested by the American Pediatrics Association. Additionally, the course is not meant to interfere with a child's play time or time with family, which have been proven to be important for young learners.

"We don't want to take away from that," Miner said.

The online learning games have a minimal time requirement because the software is highly individualized, Miner said.

"Every day, the child the is getting exactly what he or she needs to move on," she said.

Rural focus

In the first year of the program, UPSTART will be introduced to North Dakota, Idaho and Montana and will move into South Dakota and Wyoming in its second year.

North Dakota was chosen to be part of the pilot program expansion in part because of its rural population, where there is little access to site-based preschool programs. Miner said UPSTART is not intended to replace or threaten brick-and-mortar programs.

She said each program is tailored to meet state standards. Children learn the topics required for kindergarten, and parents are given outlines of what is needed. For example, some states expect children to be able to cross a road by themselves. While that can't be taught online, UPSTART notifies parents of the requirement so that they can work with their child to learn.

North Dakota does not require districts to provide preschool or kindergarten classes, but the state Department of Public Instruction has set early-childhood academic standards, a set of expectations about what a child should know and be able to do during a particular stage of development, said Public Information Specialist Dale Wetzel.

North Dakota School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said it would be up to individual districts to accept the program.

"I would encourage local school districts to evaluate the needs of their students and their communities, reach out to national experts who are familiar with a program, and determine whether it is developmentally appropriate for them," Baesler said in a statement.

Wetzel said the Solen School District on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation has expressed interest in the program.

UPSTART was introduced last year as a pilot program on the Rosebud Reservation near Rapid City, S.D., as Native American and Hispanic populations in rural areas often have low access to preschool.

"Tribal lands tend to be isolated. It's one area we'd want to look at," Miner said.

As part of the program, superintendents can also receive a scholarship to attend The School Superintendents Association's Early Learning Rural Cohort.

Parents can go to waterfordupstart.org to indicate their initial interest, and Waterford staff will follow up as the program nears.