Alejandro Gac-Artigas is a graduate of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the founder of Springboard Collaborative, a program that trains schools’ existing teachers to close the reading achievement gap by working with their parents existing budgets.
This week on Sam’s Dream Blog, Alejandro, one of Forbes’ 30-under-30 2014 selections in education, shares about getting to the root of a problem and about making an impact.
Sam's Dream Blog: What’s your professional dream? How did your dream originate?
Alejandro Gac-Artigas: My dream is for all children to have the requisite reading skills to access life opportunities. I intend to do so by closing the reading achievement gap between low and middle-income students by fourth grade.
This vision originated in my classroom during my time as a Teach for America corps member. I spent 2009-2011 teaching first grade in one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods. For my kids, it was not until November 28 ?83 days into first grade?that their reading levels finally caught up to where they had been before the summer. With limited access to books, and parents unsure how to help, kids in low-income communities experience a three-month reading loss every summer. Growing up poor, my students were already dealt tough cards.
The fact that they couldn’t play their hand until November was an injustice that stirred something deep within me.
I committed to change this reality for my kids and started trying to understand the problem. Why were my students losing ground during the summer while their higher-income peers hold steady?
Over time, I came to realize that summer learning loss is symptomatic of an even deeper problem: low-income parents have been excluded from the process of educating their kids. School communities in high-income neighborhoods can be characterized by the relationships between teachers, parents, and students. Within this triangle, children are learning through multiple pathways that enable them to make academic progress inside and outside of school. In low-income communities, the triangle is broken. Our system focuses exclusively on the interaction between teachers and students, writing off parents as unwilling or unable to help. The result is akin to a two-legged stool. Students in low-income communities lack continuous access to learning at home and school, resulting in slow progress during the school year and chronic regressions over the summer. Research finds that two-thirds of the achievement gap among high school students is attributable to summer learning loss in elementary school.
Understanding the problem facing my students, I began to envision a solution. With $5,000 in seed funding from winning TFA’s first-ever social innovation pitch competition, I planned an intervention that would do three things: 1. Coach teachers in data-driven instruction to lead K-3rd graders toward reading growth goals. 2. Equip parents with effective strategies to teach reading at home. 3. Award educational incentives in proportion to student gains. We conducted a small-scale pilot during summer 2011, and we were able to turn the typical 3-month regression into a 3-month reading gain by getting 94 percent of families to participate in weekly training workshops.
SDB: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Alejandro Gac-Artigas: I am most proud of David Williams’ story, which you can see in this short video. He is a single dad trying to help his sons, Daiquin and David Jr., get a better education than he did. Their neighborhood school was closed last spring, and David was trying to move beyond a tough past that includes dropping out of high school and spending time in prison.
Through his participation in Springboard, David was able to help his sons make five and 12 months of reading progress in just five weeks. I was fortunate to meet David at a parent workshop, and I was so moved by his determination that I asked if I could walk home with the family to learn more. David’s story is a constant source of inspiration and direction for me. It reminds me that the limitless love of a parent is the single greatest, most powerful natural resource in a child’s education.
SDB: What have been the biggest obstacles or challenges to realizing your dream? What advice do you have for others in pursuit of their dreams?
Alejandro Gac-Artigas: In the earliest days, our biggest challenge was convincing schools and funders to take a risk on an unproven model. Now, our biggest challenge is growing a stable base of paying customers amidst immense budget instability.
When we think about impact, sometimes we focus too much on coming up with solutions. In my experience, the key to impact lies not so much in the solution but in your understanding of the problem. As you deepen your understanding of the problem, let the solution follow.
When I first started Springboard, I thought that summer reading loss was the problem. But over time I’ve grown to realize summer reading loss is a symptom of a deeper problem, which is that low-income students don’t have continuous access to learning at home and school. As I have deepened my understanding of the problem, families have become more central to the solution. If I had been wedded to the solution and not the problem, we wouldn’t have made as much impact. And we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.