Captivating Students and Sparking Growth at St. Marys Area School District

Students working together on tablets at a large round table.

St. Marys Area School District Mission Statement: SMASD is committed to a World Class Education… with the Rural Advantage.

Nestled among the scenic forests of upper Pennsylvania sits St. Marys Area School District, serving a tight-knit community of over 1,800 students. Since 2016, St. Marys has partnered with eSpark to support their classrooms and engage each individual student with math and reading resources tailored to their level. Now, they’re leveraging artificial intelligence to further that goal.

The playfully personalized learning activities in eSpark’s curriculum have proven to be impactful for St. Marys teachers and students alike. Within the first few months of eSpark’s AI-powered Choice Texts going live, their classrooms had already created hundreds of personalized stories and mastered thousands of standards-aligned Quests.

We met with the team at St. Marys to get their take on what makes playful personalization such a hit in their classrooms. Here’s what they shared:

Q: So far, what has been your students’ reaction to personalizing their own reading passages with Choice Texts?

Chrissy Kuhar, Assistant Superintendent:

“The feedback that I’m getting is really good. The teachers have reached out–they said it’s really cool, the kids think it’s neat… I love that [our students] love it. Honestly, they’re the consumers, so if they love it, it’s working. And they’ll tell you if they don’t!”

Laura Smith, 5th grade teacher:

“I’ve had them come back to show me what they’re doing with it. I thought it was really cool how they could pick their character and the traits they would have, and then create the story. They were pretty excited about it! I think it’s cool that it generates something that they’re into.”

Q: Elementary students, especially in the upper grades, aren’t the easiest group to engage! How have their engagement levels looked this year?

Laura Smith, 5th grade teacher:

“I think that Choice Texts has actually really helped. For two years now they’ve used eSpark, so they kind of know the drill, and this gets them excited. They like that it gears things to their liking. I feel like in 5th grade, the stories that we get on standardized tests are ancient proverbs, or things with difficult meaning, and it’s hard for students to get wrapped up in a story they really like. This gives them the opportunity to do that… I like that.”

Chrissy Kuhar, Assistant Superintendent:

“I think [eSpark] definitely is improving interest and engagement, especially at those higher elementary grade levels… The past three years, there’s much more technology that’s incorporated into their instructional day, so I think you guys do a fabulous job trying to keep one step ahead of their interests and curiosities and desires. Because we know that they will spend time on their devices, and we need for that time to be meaningful and educational.”

Q: How do you feel about AI’s potential in the classroom to personalize learning content in the way that Choice Texts does?

Laura Smith, 5th grade teacher:

“I think it’s one of those things that can be kind of scary, because you see how it’s used for good in the world and not-so-great things in the world. [Choice Texts] is reassuring to me, because I see how much they’re engaged with it and how easy it is for this program to use it. It’s so instant–I think it’s amazing, it’s a great tool–so it’s made me a little bit more hopeful about AI! If it’s already this great, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in even a year or five years.”

Q: What additional value do you get as a teacher from having your students personalize the stories in their reading lessons?

Laura Smith, 5th grade teacher:

“You know, you want to learn a lot about your students and what they like and what they’re into, and this gives me the opportunity to do that. I can go into the Student Work tab and say ‘Oh, this kid picked unicorns, this one’s really into sports.’ The way the world is now, we’re not just teachers, we’re social-emotional focused. We are supposed to do more check-ins with what they feel and what they like. If a kid’s having a bad day, and you know they’re really into horses, that’s something you can talk about–or if they’re upset, you can use to calm them down.”

Q: What do you think other educators should know about eSpark?

Laura Smith, 5th grade teacher:

“Our whole school uses it, and our other elementary school in a neighboring town uses it too. I think I would recommend it pretty highly… Other programs, their questions are not reading-related. They do more of the English skills and basic math skills. You get a question, and that’s it. It’s not like ‘read a passage and answer questions.’ Kids need more practice with that, and that’s where eSpark really has an advantage.”

Chrissy Kuhar, Assistant Superintendent:

“I continue to really try and keep a measure of usage and how teachers and students feel about [eSpark] because if it’s no longer engaging enough, interesting enough, or yielding what we need it to yield, then we’re not getting our return on investment… and there really hasn’t been any comparable software system or relationship with a company in my entire career. So, I want to continue to see this working for our kids because it’s beneficial.”

Try Choice Texts yourself to experience the value that eSpark’s playfully personalized reading and math curriculum brings to classrooms just like yours.

Ready to see what eSpark could look like in your district?