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Second Chances at Success: Nationally Recognized Higher Level of Student Growth

Between mountains and farm lands, tucked along the James River, Big Island Elementary is proud to be one of the top fifty schools in the country to serve students of poverty.

By the end of the 2013-14 school year, Big Island Elementary was not accredited and was in danger of triggering “state oversight” requirements. Enrollment had dropped from nearly 250 just a few years earlier to a low of 120. Students were struggling to meet state standards and classrooms needed new ways to increase engagement.

Administrators turned to the surrounding community for help. Over time, programs developed to support struggling students with food, clothing, mental health support, and kindness. New teachers brought renewed passion and empathy for students. These positive changes let students know that they are valued and led to greater student achievement.

A Quest for Student Growth with eSpark

While significant changes had been made, administrators needed a new tool that would directly impact individual education. There were three criteria needed for this tool:

  • Standard-aligned lessons with clear, easy-to-access data and feedback for teacher monitoring
  • Engaging content for students
  • Budget-friendly rate for a small school

In 2021, Big Island Elementary launched eSpark in grades 2-5 with 1:1 technology, for use during small groups and intervention or enrichment time. By the end of the school year, these 110 students mastered over 1,200 reading and math standards.

40% of students who were working below grade level grew to be at or above grade level after using eSpark for one school year

According to Big Island teachers, eSpark’s actionable student data made all the difference. "The data is on point and easy to access, and it lets me know in a glance how my kids are doing, what they are working on, and what they need to work on in the future. It also keeps me abreast of what they have mastered so we can celebrate their successes," a second grade teacher at Big Island Elementary said.

eSpark has helped students “connect the dots” to in-class lessons, a fifth grade Big Island Teacher said.

Achieving Next Level Student Engagement

The real game changer for Big Island Elementary: true student engagement. “We needed something that students could work on independently but that would also engage and interest them so that their time was productive,” Andy Bliss, Principal of Big Island Elementary, said.

As students work through their differentiated Quests or assigned lessons, eSpark asks students to rate their completed activities. After completing over 17,000 reading and math activities, Big Island students have an average engagement rating of 73% on eSpark. Many Big Island administrators and teachers attribute this newfound engagement to eSpark’s differentiated content combined with its plethora of activities so students never see the same lesson twice.

“[Engagement] is key because we know that if students are interested in the content of a story they will be more likely to read it and push through it, even if it has difficult vocabulary or is on the edge of their reading level,” a third grade teacher said.

By introducing effective differentiation and student-approved content to everyday curriculum, Big Island has supported its teachers and students alike in reaching new levels of engagement and achievement for students of all levels.

"I like the fact that there are games and activities that break things up and that I am not just doing work," one Big Island Elementary second grade student said.

Receiving the ESEA Distinguished School Award

Big Island Elementary received the 2021 National Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Distinguished Schools award in Category 1, meaning it has demonstrated exceptional student performance and academic growth for two or more consecutive years.

“It's humbling, actually, as we know there are a lot of outstanding schools doing great work for students across the country,” Andy Bliss said.

“Being recognized as one of the top fifty schools in the country that serve students of poverty is amazing, but it doesn't change who we are or how we approach what we do,” Bliss said. “It's just a nice affirmation that others, inside our school division, our state, and even on a national level, recognize the progress our students and community have made over the last few years.”


Big Island in rural VA


54% free and reduced lunch


120 grade 2-5 students with 1:1 technology

Ready to see what eSpark could look in your district?