Interview | Taking Footsteps2Brilliance with Ilene Rosenthal

In the U.S., 46 percent of children enter kindergarten at risk of failure and 88 percent of them never catch up. From the moment that Ilene Rosenthal learned of these statistics, she knew that something needed to be done to level the playing field for early learners (pre-K through third grade). Ilene has spent the last 20 years developing education technology solutions that accelerate student learning in reading, language arts and mathematics. “Key to the success of these solutions has been the ability to connect school and home through technology, and to increase parental involvement,” says Ilene.

The first company Ilene co-founded in 1992, Lightspan, created comprehensive videogames for kindergarten through eighth-grade students that were played on the Sony PlayStation. “It was wonderful to watch how excited and engaged children became when game methodology was applied to learning,” says Ilene. “Even more exciting was how involved parents became in their children’s education when they were able to ‘play’ educational games together on their family television,” she says. Lightspan was created before the Internet was robust enough to handle multi-media content, so they still needed to send CDs back and forth between school and home.

A lightbulb went off when Ilene’s nephew played a video clip for her on his iPhone two years ago. “At that moment,” says Ilene, “I knew that mobile technology was going to be the wave of the future and that it would have the potential to eliminate the digital divide.” It was at that moment that Footsteps2Brilliance™ was born.

Ilene began to research mobile technology, and realized that there were multiple mobile operating systems, and that Footsteps2Brilliance had to be device agnostic. She tasked her development team with creating a platform where they could build content once and deploy it to any mobile device, iPADs, iTouches, iPhones, Nooks, Kindle Fires, and Acer Windows-7 tablets, as well as to more traditional computers that existed in schools and at home.

Mobile technology is definitely the mega-trend of the 21st-century, according to Ilene.  The way she sees it, approximately 50 percent of Americans own smart phones today. Being device agnostic means that school districts can instantly scale a school-to-home connection with standards-based educational games which allow children to have fun learning while providing parents with the tools they need to be their children’s first teachers. Here, Ilene goes even further in-depth on what Footsteps to Brilliance Means for the education sector—along with her outlook on the future, the influence of Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf—as well as something she learned from her mother.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Ilene: Footsteps2Brilliance represents the belief that every child deserves to be given the foundational steps needed to reach his/her full potential.  And when children are given the nurturing they need to develop intellectually, they become brilliant and shine in their own way.

Victor: What is Footsteps2Brilliance and who created it?

Ilene: Footsteps2Brilliance is a breakthrough early learning platform that accelerates student achievement by uniting the power of mobile gaming technology with the latest in cognitive research. Our technological innovation leverages the explosive adoption of mobile technology, like smartphones and tablets, and also includes traditional computers available throughout our schools and homes. Our platform is created with an open architecture, and our publishing innovation allows us to port traditional print material onto the platform and instantly make it come alive through digital interactivity.  The fact that our platform is device agnostic gives school districts an unprecedented ability to scale their outreach to families.

Our flagship program, the Academic Language Program for Students, also known as ALPS, teaches young children from Pre-K through third grade the 1,000 key words they need for school readiness through 18 interactive eBooks along with over 200 educational games.

For teachers and educators, our games help children apply curriculum concepts in an entertaining way while providing real-time formative assessments and achievement tracking that help to differentiate instruction. Our management system allows educators to track mastery of a child’s reading comprehension, vocabulary development, and standards-based curricular concepts. For parents, ALPS aids in connecting school to home, giving parents the easy-to-use tools that they need to extend their children’s learning.

Within the Footsteps2Brilliance Early Learning Mobile Platform is a job embedded professional development social network called Recipes for Success. This program gives early learning educators a “grassroots” teacher created database of games and activities to make classroom instruction stimulating and effective. This network allows teachers to easily share their best classroom activities and interventions with each other. By honing in on this collaborative process, every teacher will be able to succeed professionally.

Footsteps2Brilliance was created with the help of cutting edge technologists, early learning experts, psychometricians, PhDs in curriculum development, gaming specialists, teachers, principals, superintendents and kids!

Victor: What are the benefits of your program?

Ilene: Children are motivated to become active learners through engaging animated eBooks and innovative games. Teachers can instantly track student progress, differentiate instruction and engage in collaborative learning though a professional development network. Parents are given the tools they need to extend classroom learning into everyday life. Publishers can use our platform to create a mobile digital strategy.

Victor: How is Footsteps2Brilliance unique from other similar products/services? 

Ilene: There are three things that are unique to our company.

First, we are able to build content once and deploy it to any device.  This allows us to collect real-time analytic data no matter what device a child is on.

Second, working with cognitive scientists, we have invented a way to develop a “brain map” of vocabulary acquisition for every child, literally mapping thousands of words that a child has been exposed to. We also can see how each child uses the vocabulary to tell his/her own stories.

Finally, our job-embedded professional development social network allows all teachers to have a virtual file cabinet of the most effective classroom games that have been developed by teachers for teachers.

Victor: When was it developed? Tell us a story about people who helped you along the way.  

Ilene: I began working on this company two years ago.  I would develop prototypes of what I believed would be an effective product, and then I would show it to numerous teachers, principals and superintendents.  This feedback was invaluable in creating a product that was educational as well as entertaining.

One of the educators from whom I got feedback from was Dr. Barbara Nemko, Superintendent of Napa County. Dr. Nemko is one of the most innovative superintendents in the country.  She has jurisdiction over many young children who don’t have the opportunity to go to preschool. Many of these children come from households that speak Spanish as the primary language, and therefore don’t have much exposure to English.  Dr. Nemko was anxious to explore how mobile technology could help prepare her students for kindergarten.

Dr. Nemko discussed her concerns with Chuck McMinn, who at the time served as President of NapaLearns, a philanthropic nonprofit that funds education technology projects. After seeing Footsteps2Brilliance, the NapaLearns Board agreed to buy iPADs for the Calistoga Learning Center in California to help prepare young children for kindergarten.

A very talented teacher, Kim Floyd, was hired to work with the children for a four week Summer Bridges program.  She used Footsteps2Brilliance’s Academic Language Program for Students (ALPS) as the curriculum.  The results were phenomenal. Within a short four weeks, the children were exposed to over 180,000 words, read over 600 books, and saw their comprehension rise from 58 percent to 76 percent.  You can see a short video of the Summer Bridges program in action at http://www.youtube.com/footsteps2brilliance.

As a result of this success, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson presented Foosteps2Brilliance with a certificate of recognition, and said that he would use Footsteps2Brilliance as the platform for his initiative, “Leave No Child Offline.”  NBC wanted to highlight this innovation and covered the story.

Victor: Where can you get the program now?

Ilene: Footsteps2Brilliance was specifically designed to help school districts with their literacy reform plans.  However, individuals who want the series for their children can purchase it at www.footsteps2brilliance.com.

Victor: How can I see the program in action?

Ilene: We are hearing from many people that children who are using Footsteps2Brilliance have taught themselves to read. You can see a short video of Bella, a 5-year old child who taught herself to read using our program at http://www.youtube.com/footsteps2brilliance.

Victor: Who is your program particularly tailored for? 

Ilene: Footsteps2Brilliance is tailored for all children who love stories, animation, music and games.  The books and games have sufficient supports built into them to be appropriate for almost any kind of learner. Audio supports, contextualization of animations, music, multiple game levels and multi-lingual capacity allow each child to develop vocabulary, literacy skills, comprehension and critical thinking skills at his or her own pace.

Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?

Ilene: Many people are working very hard to bring education into the 21st century.  We can’t ask children to function in a globally competitive digital world if they aren’t able to use technology in their day-to-day lives.  Increasingly superintendents, principals and teachers are making the shift and integrating technology into their districts and classrooms. These schools are seeing remarkable gains in the engagement and academic success of their students.  Mobile technology is a real game changer for education.  It is cost effective, can be deployed both on and offline, and has the potential to break down the digital divide barrier.

Victor: What formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Footsteps2Brilliance?

Ilene: My mother believed that teaching was the most important job in the world. She took her role as her children’s first teacher very seriously. My mother never let an opportunity pass to educate my sister and me.  When we would take long trips as young children, she would pull out coins and we would learn math by trading pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters. She would play classical records like Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf and have us conduct the music or act it out. And she would buy us those fun, early workbooks. I loved those workbooks! In fact, those workbooks influenced the 230 plus games in our Academic Language Program for Students. My hope is that by giving parents the tools they need, they will have as much fun educating their children as my mother had with us, and I have had with my own children.

Victor: How does Footsteps2Brilliance address some of your concerns about education?

Ilene: I love seeing the excitement in children’s eyes when they are using Footsteps2Brilliance. The other day when I was waiting for a hair appointment, a little 5 year old girl was waiting for her mother. I opened my iPAD and asked the child if she wanted to make the book come alive. The books and the games totally enthralled her.  When I had to leave for my appointment, she didn’t want to stop playing, and wouldn’t leave my side. When she had to leave, she came back twice to kiss me and made me promise that I’d let her read the books again when I saw her next. When you see the enthusiasm children have for learning, and how engaging interactive content is for them, I know that we can overcome whatever educational problems we encounter.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Ilene: I am bullish about the future of American education. As we look to the future, we must take into account that schools increasingly will need to have strategies to help children who are learning English develop vocabulary, oral language, reading and comprehension skills rapidly. We are seeing entire city demographics change completely in less than five years. Knowing that the future of education is heading in this direction, I asked my curriculum team to develop the most flexible multi-lingual experience possible. Our platform now is multi-lingual and I see a vision where parents and children can be working together to overcome language barriers. A digital strategy is the swiftest way for us to be able to address this reality.

Victor: Got any quirky anecdotes about your company?

Ilene: When I was first contemplating the name of my company, I knew that I needed a tagline. I was telling my 10-year-old daughter of my vision for what I was hoping to solve, but told her that I was stuck on a tagline that would convey this in a few words. Without missing a beat, she blurted out, “Big Brains for Little People.” I laughed out loud and the rest is history.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Footsteps2Brilliance? 

Ilene: Research from the Pew Foundation has informed me that parents want to be part of their children’s education but often lack the knowledge and tools needed. Educational games are a wonderful way to empower parents to be their children’s first teachers.  Parents are a crucial part of the educational solution, and it is imperative that we give them tools that they can use to help their children learn while having fun. From my perspective, we can eradicate the education gap that exists today if we are able to form a bridge between school and home. The value of Footsteps2Brilliance is that our platform leverages the ubiquitous growth of mobile technology, making it possible for parents to help their children learn any time and any where —on a bus, in doctor’s office or in their living room.

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2 Responses to Interview | Taking Footsteps2Brilliance with Ilene Rosenthal

  1. Robert says:

    I loved this article about Footsteps2Brilliance! Could you please follow up with this company to see what they are continuing to do for early childhood education? Parents really need this…

  2. champrizi1 says:

    This device ships with Android 3.1, which is Google’s dedicated operating system for tablet devices known as Honeycomb. This improves browsability on a larger screen, unlike the first tablets which ran the smartphone version of Android. Honeycomb is a great operating system, and offers everything you need from a tablet, which is helping to put Android tablets on an equal footing with the iPad.

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