Barbara Nemko
from the field
Digital early learning prepares Napa County preschool children for kindergarten success

houghts of the Napa Valley often bring to mind acres of beautiful vineyards, upscale restaurants and spa retreats. While its beauty is undeniable, Napa is also home to many low-income families. About one-third of Napa’s population is Hispanic or Latino, and more than half of all children in Napa County’s public schools are Dual Language Learners. In addition, 42 percent of Napa’s preschool-age children are living in poverty.

Research has shown that at-risk children typically hear 30 million fewer words by age 4 than their more affluent peers. They enter kindergarten with only 25 percent of the vocabulary they need to succeed and most of them never catch up.

In an effort to level the playing field, the Napa County Office of Education and NapaLearns, a nonprofit fundraising organization, began a 2011 summer pilot project that grew into a major countywide Digital Early Learning initiative to increase early literacy opportunities for every preschool age child in Napa County.

The cornerstone of the DEL initiative is the Footsteps2Brilliance (F2B) literacy app. A countywide license for this app was purchased in perpetuity and is available at no cost to every preschool age child in Napa County. With more than 200 e-books and learning games in English and Spanish, the F2B app reads the stories aloud to children in both languages while highlighting the words in red as they are spoken. The stories are highly interactive and the characters are brought to life when touched. This engaging program teaches children the 1,000 words research shows they need to know in order to succeed in kindergarten. The preschool students in the pilot loved the program and results from this study showed that use of the F2B app was associated with statistically significant positive effects on children’s receptive and expressive language skills as measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, with the largest gains seen in our Dual Language Learner population.

The Napa COE’s 24 California State Preschool classrooms are using F2B with classroom iPads in conjunction with
traditional language learning instruction. In addition to our classroom work with children, Napa COE’s DEL team conducts professional development trainings for its teachers and provides coaching and incentive awards for their participation in the program. Other schools throughout the county are also utilizing F2B in the classroom with the help of our DEL team.

Digital early learning prepares Napa County

Parents play a key role in their child’s academic success, but many parents lack the tools and knowledge to help their children succeed. The Napa COE initiative provides all families of preschool-age children access to the rich library of F2B books, games, nursery rhymes, fables, phonics songs and journals, regardless of income level or literacy skills. To date, more than 1,400 Napa COE preschool parents have attended early literacy workshops. This effort includes an 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 how to use the F2B app with their child. Our goal is to allow more children to access the F2B program at home in order to reinforce the digital literacy lessons taking place in the classroom.

Community outreach is a vital component of the DEL initiative. Through partnerships with organizations like Napa Valley Community Housing, Kaiser Hospital, family centers, health clinics, libraries and women’s shelters, we’re able to extend our reach to those in the community who can benefit most from using digital early literacy programs with their children.

After two years of painstaking preparations, Napa COE has completed three years of full-scale implementation of the DEL program. As part of our ongoing near-term and longterm evaluation, Napa COE will continue to track the language and literacy abilities of children in DEL treatment cohorts through third grade. Napa COE pre-DEL students and state preschool students from other counties will serve as comparison groups.

Qualitative evaluation methods include collection and analysis of teacher and parent focus group interviews and observation data. Quantitative methods consist of collection and analysis of F2B usage, preschool student Desired Results Developmental Profile data (the observation-based assessment tool mandated in California), student scores on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, Scholastic Reading Inventory and the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California.

Now at more than 100 million words, 30,000 hours and 3,000 children enrolled, teachers, parents and students are highly engaged with using F2B. Napa COE students who received DEL have shown statistically significant increases in English Proficiency scores vs. pre-DEL students. Our teachers feel F2B has enriched the entire preschool curriculum, and parents report it has helped their child learn more words, while also supporting language development for their siblings and themselves. We’re working hard to overcome the word gap for Napa County’s youngest students and putting success for all children within reach.

As a result of our success with the preschool literacy app, we became a pilot site participant in the Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition through the Barbara Bush Foundation. Launched in May, we are making the Learning Upgrade app available for free to second language learners. The app is designed to improve both literacy and math skills for English learners, and can also help prepare adults for the General Equivalency Diploma. To participate, download “Learning Upgrade” from the App Store or Google Play. Then register using code 2266746.

Visit, or contact me at, to find out more about how to implement a Digital Early Learning program in your county or district. Visit learning to learn more about the adult literacy app.

Dr. Barbara Nemko is in her sixth term as Napa County superintendent of schools and is widely recognized as an advocate for digital innovation in California schools.