Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

How can a public school superintendent help all children prepare for kindergarten if the majority of entering kindergarteners haven’t attended preschool?

If you’re Paul Dakin, the superintendent of Revere Public Schools, who understands that learning begins at birth, you give families throughout the community access to a mobile app that targets children’s language and literacy development months before they enroll in kindergarten.

Committed to reaching all children, Dakin bought a license to cover the community-wide use of an app called Footsteps2Brilliance.

“My responsibility is to think of ways to optimize education for the population we serve,” Dakin said in a recent interview. His goal is to effectively “increase services with finite funds.”

Footsteps can reach children who are not enrolled in Revere’s preschool program. Only 40% of the city’s nearly 1,800 preschool age children are enrolled in an early education program, according to the latest estimates from the American Community Survey.

The app features animated talking eBooks, music and games – all geared to boost vocabulary and reading skills. Footsteps can be used on smart phones, tablets or computers anywhere at any time of day. Families who don’t own any of these devices can use computers at the local public library.

During a 26-minute session on Footsteps, its creators say, a child can be exposed to over a thousand words. That’s important given research that shows that children’s early vocabulary is a strong predictor of later literacy outcomes. The app can run in Spanish, but children are encouraged to use it in English.

As children use Footsteps, the app records their progress. According to Dakin and Dianne Kelly, one of Revere’s assistant superintendents, Revere will share this information with teachers before the end of summer so that they can see how their future students are doing. On the first day of school, teachers will know which children might need a lesson in vowels or extra help with vocabulary. That’s an advantage given that it can take teachers three to five weeks to make similar assessments of students’ academic needs, Kelly notes.

So far, some 400 rising kindergarteners have registered for school. Revere officials will make sure they have a Footsteps account and are using the app.

Revere is also piloting the app in some classrooms. Dakin says “teachers love it.” Teachers also find that the app works well with English language learners.

The program appeals to children and lets them proceed at their own pace, Dakin and Kelly said. They would like to see entering kindergarteners who are using the app at home do so twice a day for 20 minutes – or at least once a day, arguing that it’s this kind of daily engagement that will help children make progress, especially during the school-free summer months.

Of course, using technology with young children can be controversial. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls on parents to limit screen time to “to less than one to two hours per day.”

“In today’s world I don’t know…” Dakin started to explain.

“… if that’s a reality,” Kelly said, finishing the thought.

“Children come to our doorstep with an education gap in place,” Dakin said.

That gap can be seen in the city’s third grade MCAS scores. On the spring 2012 test, 48 percent of Revere’s third graders tested below the “proficient” level in reading, and 46 percent were below proficient in math.

Over the summer, school officials will track usage of the app and contact families who aren’t using it to see if they’re having any access problems. Dakin sees this as a way to learn more about parents and encourage their involvement in their children’s education.

When Revere’s next school year starts, district leaders and teachers will have the chance to see what impact Footsteps has on entering kindergarten students’ language development.