NEWMAN - Early childhood literacy took center stage last Wednesday at the West Side Theatre, where the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District hosted a summit to officially roll out a learning app available free of charge to all residents of the district.

While the focus of  presenting the digital learning platform, Footsteps2Brilliance, was on early childhood education, community members of all ages can use the app to develop and hone literacy skills.

The program has been available for about a year in lower elementary grades, but district officials hope to broaden its use, not only in the classroom but in the community as a whole.

And, a second digital app, this one geared to youngsters of pre-school age, will soon be available as well. Ilene Rosenthal, co-founder of Footsteps2Brilliance, announced at the summit that the company is donating a new app, Clever Kids University, to the district in support of its community literacy initiative.

Superintendent Randy Fillpot, in opening the summit, stressed the importance of closing the school-readiness gap between youngsters who have been raised in an environment where literacy is emphasized and those who have not.

Through his years in education, Fillpot told those gathered, “it has been obvious which students have had the benefit of pre-school or a literacy-rich environment.”

Promoting literacy, he said, is one of three key components of the district’s school-readiness initiative, which also focuses on the importance of physical and emotional well-being.

The Footsteps2Brilliance app offers a variety of reading activities and games which instill literacy skills.

Available in Spanish and English, Footsteps2Brilliance can be downloaded onto any smart phone, tablet or traditional computer.

The app offers a range of features geared to various ages and literacy levels.

The program, for example, can read to younger children as they follow along on the device and click on words or illustrations to bring them to life. E-books are offered through the app, and users can take part in activities such as creating their own book or completing other skill-based exercises.

The app allows parents and teachers to track the number of words to which their children have been exposed, the number of books read, comprehension levels and more.

Last week’s summit included student demonstrations of how the versatile app can be used.

Rosenthal, the Footsteps2Brilliance co-founder, praised the district and community for its commitment to the literacy campaign.

The importance of students starting schools with literacy skills cannot be overstated, she remarked.

Some 50 percent of students start school anywhere from one to three years behind in terms of literacy skills, she told those gathered at the summit. Of those, nearly 90 percent will never fully catch up.

“By age 5, we have determined the trajectory of a child’s life,” Rosenthal stated.

Instilling literacy skills while children are still pre-schoolers is imperative, she reiterated.

The district purchased Footsteps2Brilliance “as a gift to your community perpetually so that we won’t be the flavor of the day,” she added.

The company is going beyond that, she said, to present a gift of the new Clever Kids University program.

She was followed by Dr. Gregory Spencer, vice president of strategic partnerships for Footsteps2Brilliance.

The program gifted to the district, he noted, is valued at $250,000.

Childhood literacy, Spencer stated, is important not only to the lives of individuals but to the health of communities and ultimately the nation.

If every child walked into school ready to learn, he remarked, it would change not only their lives but their community.

Because he could not read or write as a young child he struggled in school, fell into a gang role at 9 and was recruited to join the Black Panthers at 12.

The support of others helped him turn his life around.

“There were people who refused to give up on me. If you give up on a child, you give up on the security of nation,” Spencer asserted.

Who occupies the White House or other positions of government authority matters not, he emphasized.

“What matters is who is in your house,” Spencer said. “You have to take control of your destiny, parents and community members.”

Fillpot closed the summit with a challenge for students and the community as a whole to read eight million words on the Footsteps2Brilliance app by March 1.

In conjunction with the summit, additional Footsteps2Brilliance training was offered to TK-3 teachers last week.

But the superintendent reiterated the importance of getting the app into the hands of students before they reach school age.

“We enjoy using it in the classrooms, but really where I am hoping that it has a transformative impact is in those 0- to 4-year-olds that we don’t yet have. I think parents want things that are educational for their kids.

He also emphasized that the app can be used by community members of all ages who wish to improve their literacy skills, and is free to all families and residents regardless of whether they have children in the school system.

Families can create a Footsteps2Brilliance account on a link found on the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District website.