Pre-K for Parents

UM Professor Trent Atkins, shown here with his wife, Rachel, and 5-year-old son Abe, has launched a private company to promote reading skills for young children.

UM-produced company helps parents prep kids for kindergarten

By Alex Strickland

Like most parents, Trent Atkins knows there’s always more he could be doing to prepare his kids for school. But unlike most parents, the professor in UM’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences set out to create tools so all parents could do something about that nagging feeling.

Research shows that around the country some 40 percent of kids start kindergarten already behind in key benchmarks. It’s a gap that’s hard to make up and gets wider as time goes on.

“If kids aren’t reading by the end of first grade, that’s a huge predictor of ongoing difficulty,” Atkins says. “What has me passionate is looking at the system and seeing we have left parents out. We’ve kind of given them a pass and said, ‘We’ll take care of that.’”

While that sobering statistic about first-grade reading proficiency has created a national push for more early literacy efforts in institutional education systems, Atkins has worked to get parents involved in small but meaningful ways. He and a pair of graduate students, Craig Buscher and Daniel Zielaski, started Immersive Learning for Children, a private company offering simple guidance for parents on how to help get their young children thinking about the building blocks of reading before they walk into their first day of school.

“These are little things parents can do like pointing things out when reading to their child or talking about them when driving down the road,” Atkins says. “And the younger a kid is the easier it is – just expose them to things like letter sounds. Parents could and should be doing this.”

And the appeal likely won’t be limited to parents. School administrators faced with 40 percent of kids being unprepared to start formal schooling have to make immense personnel and fiscal commitments to bring those students up to speed. What would the implications be for resources if that number dropped to 20 percent?

For Atkins, whose background is in special education – a section of the U.S. education system that he describes as historically reactionary by nature – having fewer kids who need to make up ground means more resources to be proactive in the classroom and help the kids who are at risk of falling behind their peers.

But how to get that number down? Atkins believes parents are ready and willing to help prepare their kids, if only they had a better idea of how to go about it. Immersive Learning for Children sends parents a series of short emails with a brief rundown of a “lesson” and links to videos explaining and demonstrating ways to work with their child (see sidebar).

“Most parents want to do this, but have they learned what they should be doing?” Atkins asked. “Most are open to it, and the easier it is the higher the likelihood that they’ll use it.”

That sentiment was echoed by Zielaski, who saw parents realize what they were capable of right before his eyes.

“You’re freeing parents from this false reality that they don’t have the skills to positively impact their children’s educational future,” he says. “We literally saw it in front of us at Missoula County Public School pre-K activities as we watched a wave of emotions come over parents when they realized what they could do.”

As the company gets its feet underneath it, reading will be the primary focus, but Atkins says he hopes to add beginning math and even social behavior lessons at some point. He wants to prepare young students as well as possible not just for kindergarten, but for the rest of their lives.

“If we can teach kids to read, write and do simple math, the sky is the limit,” Atkins says. “And maybe the sky isn’t even the limit.”

Using Digital Technology to Create Analog Experiences

The name Immersive Learning for Children belies the primary target of its email-based lessons: parents. Emails from the Montana startup introduce parents to a simple concept like connecting spoken words to printed words. A few short Web videos outline the concept and suggest potential activities and strategies to help connect with the young child.

The emails are brief – “We’re trying to make them even shorter,” says company co-founder Trent Atkins – and in addition to the core lesson text and videos, the emails also include a list of links for free apps and Web resources for multiple platforms and devices.

The online nature of the content means that Internet access is a prerequisite for the outreach to work, and while Atkins acknowledges availability isn’t universal, the email method is rooted in simplicity.

“We asked ourselves how you make it as accessible as possible, and the fact is that most people now have smartphones,” Atkins says. “If they don’t have a smartphone, they probably have a computer or other device at home, or at the very least, they’ve got access to a public library.”

The no-nonsense short videos and lack of fancy graphics matches the emails’ intent, which isn’t to pull kids or their parents into additional screen time but to get them engaged with one another to work on simple, entertaining lessons wherever they are.

“It’s really a digital tool to help create an analog connection between parents and children,” Atkins says.

Foundation Helps Business Launch

As the idea for Immersive Learning for Children was getting off the ground with a business plan, launch strategy and the million things required to get a business going, there was one considerable hang-up: Without the short videos that had been used for free in a research environment, the company would be underwater right from the start because of the steep costs associated with making video content on their own.

The videos were produced for a series called Building Blocks for Literacy by the Stearn Center for Language and Learning, a foundation in Vermont. The center had agreed to their free distribution during research Atkins conducted as part of SHAPE-P20, a wide-ranging initiative between UM and the Missoula County Public Schools to take a holistic look at education from preschool to the doctoral level. The Montana program is supported by the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation and counts developing community and family investment in education among its goals.

“A big part of the business’s viability was finding out whether the Stearn Center would be open to some kind of profit-sharing arrangement,” Atkins says. “As it happened, it was our heavy involvement with the Washington Foundation that helped convince them to do it.”

The nature and scope of SHAPE-P20 also helped foster a unique environment in the education college that then-graduate student Daniel Zielaski credited with his unique graduate school experience, culminating in a partnership at an education technology startup, as well as a collegiality that’s hard to come by.

“When SHAPE-P20 was taking off, there was an environment where people were invested in one another’s success and at the highest levels of leadership there was help to build out a set of projects that melded departments together,” he says. “I can’t help but think that’s why SHAPE-P20 was successful and will probably continue to be so, and why Immersive Learning for Children was born out of that project.”

As the UM liaison for SHAPE-P20, Atkins has been closely involved with the project’s efforts, including research into the creation of assessment tools for pre-K students where he met with focus groups of kindergarten teachers and got a close look at what those educators hope to see when a child begins his or her formal education. The resulting assessment showed him that many of the young students coming up short on certain benchmarks could derive huge benefits from some relatively simple guidance at home in the months before they start kindergarten.

“I work from the principle that something is better than nothing, and even though an assessment is just a snapshot of a kid’s knowledge, we can create tools to help parents help their kids,” he says.