Digital Early Learning:

Breakthrough Program in Napa County

Five years ago, the NapaLearns Digital Early Learning Initiative was introduced to the five Napa County school districts and the County Office of Education, helping them implement preschool through 2nd grade online reading and math programs that included vocabulary development, multimedia storytelling, personalized learning through games and activities, and progress tracking.


In the summer of 2011, the Napa County Office of Education (NCOE) and NapaLearns began a pilot project that grew into a major countywide initiative to increase early literacy opportunities for every preschool age child in Napa County.

The cornerstone of this Digital Early Learning (DEL) initiative is an application called Footsteps2Brillance (F2B). The literacy app has over 200 e-books and learning games in English and Spanish. Among many other skills, it teaches children the 1,000 words they need to know in order to succeed in kindergarten.

Dr. Barbara Nemko, Napa County Superintendent and NapaLearns Board Member, recognized the potential of F2B after watching her granddaughter interact with the app. This experience inspired her to push for the initiative countywide, which came to be known as “Barb’s Big Initiative.”

Preschool students show Napa County Superintendent Dr. Nemko how they access e-books on a classroom iPad.

Since 2014, NCOE’s 23 California State Preschool classrooms have been implementing F2B with classroom iPads. Other schools throughout the county are also using F2B in the classroom, and NCOE is able to offer F2B free of charge to every preschool age child in Napa County.

In its first year of implementation, the program was focused on helping teachers learn to use the app and integrate it into their traditional approaches to teaching. But the success of the program wasn’t without its challenges, notes Lori Hill, NCOE Digital Early Learning Coordinator. Teachers had to accept technology as a tool for vocabulary development — for preschoolers!

“Teachers were apprehensive to start with…But once they saw how engaging it was for the kids, and saw improvements in their vocabulary and literacy skills in a very short period of time they were totally on board.”
Lori Hill, NCOE Digital Early Learning Coordinator
Jeannette Luedders, an Early Childhood Special Education Teacher, reads aloud an e-book to her students.

Marianne Stegman, a site supervisor at St. Helena Child Development Center, admitted she was “terrified” when they introduced the iPad. Now she uses F2B every day in small groups with her students, and even leverages her Apple TV to show e-books on a larger screen to create a bigger impact.

By June 2016, just one year after the program was piloted, every NCOE preschool teacher was using the app daily and had seamlessly integrated it with their other preschool curriculum and activities.

“Even teachers who were against it from the beginning turned around,” recalled Lori Hill. “The teachers saw how engaging the app is for the kids as they learned new vocabulary while playing games. They also found ways to incorporate their favorite traditional books and activities with the F2B stories.”

In addition to classrooms, F2B is also being used in other settings where young children may benefit from exposure.

“Thanks to the generosity of NapaLearns, we also have several devices at the Ole Health clinic. Staff have put them in their waiting rooms so that families and kids can enjoy the F2B app while they wait for their appointment. We also have the app available at the Napa Emergency Women’s Services shelter, where kids and their moms often stay 2–3 months at a time.
— Lori Hill, NCOE Digital Early Learning Coordinator

As part of the DEL Initiative, a longitudinal evaluation study is underway to compare preschool children with no exposure to the DEL program to those who took part in the full implementation. The study goal is to follow the two groups through 3rd grade to compare their literacy development.

Conveniently for researchers, F2B automatically collects data as children use the app, including time spent in the various activities such as books and games. Reports even show how many children are using it at school, after school, and during weekends.

Researchers also plan to look at certain assessments the children are already required to take, such as state mandated tests, and compare rate of growth among students in the program implementation versus children with no exposure. One such test is the CELDT, an English language test, which will measure how student’s English skills progress. This is especially important, as the target population for F2B is dual-language learners.

Even in just a short amount of time, Stegman has noticed great progress among her students.

“The amount of English that the children use now, compared to when they entered in the fall is amazing. F2B is really accelerating that growth as students can toggle back and forth between the languages to hear the stories.”

While data from the study is currently being collected, preliminary results show that students in the program have:

  • Logged over 6,500 hours during the 2015–2016 school year
  • Been exposed to more the 27 million words
Students often use the F2B app in small group settings.

Another surprising finding was that children weren’t the only ones learning from this app.

“What we’re finding is that parents, many of whom only speak Spanish, are learning vocabulary words alongside their kids.” Hill explained. “This was an unintended, but positive consequence we found.”

“The parents love it,” agreed Stegman. “Some parents have bought a tablet for home because they see the value.”

To date, 661 NCOE preschool parents have attended early literacy workshops. This effort includes a parent iPad loan program that allows parents to take home an iPad if they participate in classes that teach them how to use the device, set up email, and to use the F2B app with their child.

Investment in early childhood education and the push for catching students up at an early age is critical. By leveraging technology to close the achievement gap in the early years, there is a greater chance that students can be successful in all of their academic pursuits.

As Dr. Nemko put it, “Technology is here, it’s not going away. For kids to learn to use technology in school at three or four is pretty amazing!”
Dr. Nemko and student read ‘Sandy the Seahorse’ together, an F2B e-book.