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Increasing Literacy Rates with Purposeful iPad Integration

Wilkinsburg elementary students using iPads and eSpark achieved 64% more growth than their non-eSparking peers.

"Our students were very engaged when the iPad time started in our classrooms…differentiated instruction targeting their weaknesses is invaluable!”
Dr. Dan Matsook, Superintendent at Wilkinsburg School District
Wilkinsburg, PA a suburb of Pittsburgh
932 students in Preschool through 12th grade
1:1 iPads with eSpark for 300 students in Preschool through 6th grade
Keystones to Opportunity state literacy grant


Nestled in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg Borough School District is an urban public district serving an extremely high-need population of students. With 80 percent of attendees qualifying for free or reduced price school meal programs, graduation rates and test scores have historically been challenging to maintain and elevate. Upon receiving a Keystones to Opportunities (Striving Readers) Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Wilkinsburg administrators sought new, effective teaching methods to engage learners and increase literacy rates in the 2014-2015 school year. “We serve a student population that is 98.5% African American and 100% low socio-economic background. It was clear to us that we needed to implement instructional strategies that are research-based,” stated district Superintendent Dr. Dan Matsook.

Surveying the Pittsburgh region, Wilkinsburg researched the innovative initiatives taking place with iPads at nearby Elizabeth Forward School District. While visiting the neighboring district, Wilkinsburg administrators observed students in elementary and middle school that were fully immersed in their classroom learning. Elizabeth Forward administrators reported that academic achievement rates were increasing across the district as a result of personalized learning pathways provided by eSpark Learning. Impressed with the potential of the program, Wilkinsburg leaders developed plans for their own blended learning initiative to personalize literacy curriculum for elementary students.


In October of 2014, the Wilkinsburg school board approved a two-year lease agreement with Apple to provide 1-to-1 iPads to 300 students in select Wilkinsburg classrooms. As a first step in the district's technology rollout, Turner Elementary and Kelly Elementary each received 150 devices. By partnering with eSpark, administrators developed a plan to get the most out of their iPad investment and effectively differentiate reading instruction. “Our iPad initiative jumpstarted our vision,” explained Dr. Matsook. “eSpark was chosen due to user-friendly functions for both the students and the teachers. We especially liked the authentic assessment piece at the end of the program.” The superintendent believed that with access to technology at a young age, children would be placed on a high growth trajectory early in their educational career.

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To plan the blended learning pilot, Wilkinsburg strategically assigned the iPads to teachers that were the most comfortable with technology. Within this group of newly designated Technology Integrators, lead coaches were identified from both elementary schools to share best practices and help other teachers in their building with device rollout and integration. The program was to provide personalized literacy content to exactly half of the district’s preschool through sixth grade students. iPads were placed in one classroom for each grade level in Turner and Kelly Elementaries. If proven successful, Wilkinsburg planned to expand the initiative and serve the other half of elementary students beginning in Fall 2015.


In December of 2014, all elementary students took Let’s Go Learn (LGL)—an online adaptive assessment—to accurately diagnose learning needs and have a reliable mechanism to compare growth between eSpark students and non-eSpark students. LGL’s Diagnostic Online Reading Assessment (DORA) Series provides individualized data across eight reading measures. Data scientists at eSpark aligned students' assessment results to Common Core State Standards in order to assign individual learning goals to each of the 300 students starting the program in January. Each student was assigned a queue of digital content relevant to his or her unique learning needs that would be ready as soon as the program launched after winter break.

Keeping in mind the importance of teacher preparation, eSpark consulted with school leaders to design a custom professional development schedule and delivered the kick-off training in mid-January. Teachers chosen to implement eSpark attended a half-day training session to learn iPad basics, plan for adaptations to classroom routines, and understand eSpark best practices. After thoroughly preparing teachers, Wilkinsburg's iPad initiative launched in late January. Based on individual teachers' discretion, students engaged in iPad instructional time about three times per week for 30 minutes. During this time, students logged into eSpark and accessed personalized assessments, videos, third-party apps, web-based challenges, and synthesis tasks that targeted their areas of highest need in English Language Arts.

Wilkinsburg students loved eSpark and classroom engagement levels soared. Each learner could move through content at his or her own pace on the iPad. During intervention time, students stayed focused and teachers felt confident that their students were reading eBooks and playing educational games aligned to their specific needs. Teachers welcomed the program as an additional resource to help students improve their academic performance. By doing the heavy lifting of app curation and differentiation for them, eSpark saved teachers valuable planning time as they did not need to decide which apps to assign every student for effective literacy intervention. Dr. Matsook echoed the staff’s sentiments: “Our students were very engaged when the iPad time started in our classrooms. I can attest to their focus when I visited the classrooms with 4-5 other adults to take pictures, the students barely looked up to see who all these strangers were in the room!”


In just a few months, Wilkinsburg students completed 1400 Common Core ELA standards—about five standards per student. Learners overwhelmingly indicated positive program engagement. On average, 93% of students' eSpark activities received a positive “thumbs up” rating when prompted by the app’s built-in feedback mechanism—indicating that Wilkinsburg students liked more than 9 out of 10 of their personalized apps and videos. While it was evident that students were engaged and having fun with iPads, administrators focused on understanding the achievement differences between the elementary students that used iPads and eSpark for one semester and those that did not. At the end of the school year, all students completed the Let’s Go Learn DORA assessment to measure growth in ELA.

For nearly every grade level in both elementary schools, eSpark students saw higher growth than non-eSpark students. Between the Winter and Spring LGL assessments, students who used iPads and eSpark grew 82% of their semester targets while those who did not use eSpark grew only 50% of their targets. Recognizing the significantly higher growth from using eSpark, Wilkinsburg administrators approved program expansion to allow full participation of all preschool through sixth grade students with the help of an extended Keystones to Opportunities Grant for the 2015-16 school year. The hope of teachers, principals, and the central office is that the additional technology will help continue the upward momentum of the district’s School Performance Profile Score—impacted by student performance on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. Along with increasing academic growth, eSpark is helping to empower Wilkinsburg teachers to get the most out of technology in the classroom. As Superintendent Dr. Matsook states, “differentiated instruction targeting their weaknesses is invaluable!”

Photo credit: Gary Pete


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For nearly every grade level in both elementary schools, eSpark students saw higher growth than the non-eSpark students. Between the Winter and Spring Let's Go Learn assessments, students who used iPads and eSpark grew 82% of their semester targets while those who did not use eSpark grew only 50% of their targets.


In just a few months, Wilkinsburg students completed 1400 Common Core ELA standards, about 5 standards per student. They overwhelmingly indicated positive program engagement, giving a “thumbs up” to an average of more than 9 out of 10 activities when prompted by eSpark’s built-in feedback mechanism.

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