Nemko said they selected Footsteps2Brilliance because it is all-inclusive. “It’s a very complete app. It includes a fiction and non-fiction library of books that read themselves to kids in English and Spanish,” she said. “There are comprehension questions, phonics games and a series of songs about letters. Kids can record themselves saying the sounds, then listen. There’s a game for sight identification of words that’s just like whack-a-mole, and the game gets faster as the child gets better.”
Kids can also write their own books by selecting characters and background scenery, “so they end up with a book that looks good,” she said. “They can keep it on their digital bookshelf and e-mail it to grandma.” Kids who didn’t grow up having nursery rhymes read to them can learn them karaoke style.
Napa County families who don’t have tablet computers can purchase a Kindle Fire Kids Edition after making a small down payment and signing an agreement to make monthly payments, or they can use any computer or smart device they own. The app is free, and thanks to extensive community outreach more than 1,600 children in the county are using it.
A Napa COE team of IT specialists and a lead teacher who is a coach for the program are available to help parents download the app and answer questions. They show parents how to use the device with their kids in their laps, as if the tablet is a book.
Because children use their tablets at home and school, the app provides a crucial home-school link and an any time/anywhere learning environment, enabling parents to extend student learning and inspiring children to develop a daily habit of reading.
It’s also a management tool for teachers and administrators. A reporting system allows teachers to track student progress and differentiate instruction, and administrators can look at which classes are reading the most and when they’re reading.
“This is all about closing the achievement gap before kindergarten,” Nemko said. “The gap doesn’t start in school; kids bring it to school. We have known since the 1980s all the research showing the effect of fewer words being spoken in the home.”
Nemko said Footsteps2Brilliance “is not an add-on. It is integrated into the curriculum. It’s not about using an iPad. It’s about bringing content to kids in a more interactive and engaging way.”
Napa COE reports that data evaluating the program has been very positive. Four years after starting the program, “we are seeing so many more second and third graders performing at grade level,” Nemko said. Now with the use of the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, often referred to as CALPADS, students have identification numbers that follow them when they move and the data should be easier to collect.
For its early digital literacy efforts, Napa County Office of Education has received the $50,000 grand prize from Collaboration Nation, a trip to the White House Summit on Early Education to share its success story, a 2014 Digital Innovation in Learning Award and a “District of Distinction” award from District Administration magazine.
But Nemko said more important than the awards is the fact that “kids come to school with a level playing field. It makes no sense that we have kids who start school already having a two-year gap, and then we blame schools as if they created it. We are narrowing the gap.”