Nonprofit Mississippi News Gov. Tate Reeves donated nearly twice as much federal funds to an Utah-based nonprofit that serves a fraction of the children. Waterford.org applied for and received $1.9million to provide a virtual 20-minute-a day computer program to 2,500 children in Mississippi. This amount is more than double the amount received by other schools and child care centers that received grants from Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER). These federal aid funds are distributed to the state by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Reeves is fully in control of the expenditure of this money. In its application for funds, Mississippi Today obtained through a public records request from the organization, the organization acknowledged that its request was beyond the guidelines. “… Our proven pandemic recovery impact and past performance and our ready network of partners justifies the request and positions us in a position to do more than ust (sic), meet the pandemic moment — We will build capacity for both parents and children for a lifetime!” stated the application. Waterford.org spokesperson said that 65% of the grant would go towards providing connectivity and devices to those who require it. According to the group, it has also hired seven additional coaches to help families and bring the total state’s coaches to 13. Waterford.org stated that it had identified the need for more money than the $1million maximum award. Bailey Martin, the press secretary for Reeves, explained that the increased costs resulted from more families being served and each family receiving internet service and devices. “Our office found these costs to be justified” and in the best interest of Mississippi’s children and families. Waterford.org (formerly known as the Waterford Institute) isn’t new to Mississippi. In 2009, it launched the Upstart program in Utah. It is a computer-adaptive program that provides 15 to 20 minutes per day for preschoolers. It was funded by the Utah Legislature and has been expanded to at least fifteen states throughout the country. However, Mississippi Upstart has not been able to obtain public funding. After receiving resistance from public education groups, several bills that would have created or funded the Mississippi Upstart project were rejected by lobbyists representing the nonprofit. “Virtual” education is not an effective or appropriate way to educate preschool children. State tax dollars should not go to the pockets of wealthy families from out of state,” said The Parents’ Campaign in a 2012 email to its members. This group advocates for full funding of Mississippi’s public schools system. The email refers to the Heustons as the “wealthy” family. Dustin Heuston was a former college teacher who also served as headmaster at a New York City K-12 school. He founded Waterford in 1976, and started creating educational technology and software. His son Benjamin Heuston took over as the president and CEO of the organization after he retired in 2016. According to 2018 tax returns, Benjamin Heuston makes $331,800 per year in this role. Waterford.org has been operating in Mississippi since 2016 with private funding. The program is available to 3,639 children from low-income areas in Mississippi, thanks to partnerships with Jackson Public Schools and the Mississippi Head Start Association. Officials have stated that the program is intended to complement, not replace, pre-school. We work with students before they enter kindergarten. LaTasha Hadley is the point person for Waterford.org in Mississippi and vice president of state educational partnerships. “We use our software only to fill in gaps, give extra boosts of cognitive learning,” said LaTasha Hadley, vice president of state education partnerships and the point person for Mississippi Waterford.org. Students log on for between 15 and 20 minutes per day, five days per week. Parents can monitor their child’s progress with coaches who provide guidance and support. It works according to some early education professionals who have used it. Nita Norphlet Thompson, executive director at the Mississippi Head Start Association said Upstart had “absolutely” made a positive difference on Head Start students who participated. She said that she was impressed by the improvement in the children’s data and assessment scores. “Having conversations with families, they discuss not only how they see improvements in educational outcomes but also how it’s helping their family re-evaluate their entire perspective on early education.” Jackson Public Schools partners with Waterford.org to offer the program to its preschoolers. Assistant superintendent William Merritt said that the program had “proved to be an asset in helping reduce the gap in math and reading.” It’s a high-quality program,” the organization claims. The success of the program is also supported by studies done by its own research unit and others. One study from outside focused on children in Mississippi who were enrolled in the program almost two years after their first year of preschool. Half the children participated in Waterford’s literacy program and half in the math program. The results showed that kindergartners in the reading program scored higher than those in the other group in literacy measures, while math students outperformed those in the literacy group in math skills measures. It is important to be cautious when interpreting the results due to the limitations of “the absence of highly related baseline measurements to control for preexisting learning differences in learning achievement” and the fact that the final sample size was small due to a lack of family participation as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Waterford.org was also awarded an innovation grant by the U.S. Department of Education. A study that examined the early literacy outcomes of the reading program for children in low-income rural areas revealed some positive results. The study found significant differences in the mean scores of children on letter knowledge and phonetic awareness. However, there were no differences in vocabulary, oral language and listening comprehension. Critics argue that money should be used to fund traditional prekindergarten, especially in states like Mississippi, where there are few high-quality public preschool options. According to the 2019 State of Preschool report by National Institute for Early Education Research, only 27% of 3-year olds and 33% of 4-yearolds go to public funded early childhood education centers. Waterford is not going to change the reality that children are not receiving the quality early childhood education they deserve. That comes from having trained adults who understand the child’s development and learning through play. Denisha Jones, cofounder of Defending the Early Years (a 2012 nonprofit that advocates for quality early education that incorporates active, developmentalally appropriate, play-based learning, was quoted as saying. It doesn’t address the fact that parents still need child care to be able to go to work. Jones stated that if the parent is not there with the child (young), it doesn’t happen. Jones suggested that state leaders need to take a longer-term perspective, even during a pandemic. Research shows that children learn best through play and their five senses, rather than by spending too much time in front of screens. Reeves stated that the program was another way to ensure all Mississippi children have the opportunity to succeed academically, professionally and personally. However, 93% of participants are below 185% federal poverty — which is an annual income of approximately $48,000 for a family with four children. Waterford.org hopes that at least 65% of participants will achieve a score of “school readiness” on the Waterford Assessment of Core Skills by the end of 16 weeks. This assessment will be administered in February.