Pearson Affordable Learning Fund

Alejandro Gac-Artigas Springboards Many Dreams

Alejandro Gac-Artigas
Alejandro Gac-Artigas

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.

Thanks for reading Sam’s Dream Blog!  Learn more about Alejandro Gac-Artigas and Springboard here. Check back for the next post on Tue., Sep. 30.

Katelyn Donnelly: Making Your Dreams Reality

Katelyn Donnelly is the Managing Director at Pearson and of the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, which helps foster affordable learning in the developing world. She advises Pearson on global strategy, efficacy, research and innovation agenda and consults to governments on education system transformation and delivery. She is the co-author of "Alive in the Swamp," a leading publication that explores how to better assess digital innovations in learning. She also advises several start-up companies across Europe, Asia and Africa. Donnelly was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Education list.

Katelyn shares with Sam’s Dream Blog about progressing toward dreams one step at a time, what the biggest obstacles are in pursuing dreams and finding motivation.

Sam's Dream Blog: What’s your professional dream? How did your dream originate?  How did this become a personal dream of yours?

Katelyn Donnelly: My professional dream.  That seems daunting.  I've always taken career and profession one step at a time and followed my intuition to take the most attractive opportunity to work with the best people to create something new and special.  I started my career in consulting which provided a great core skill set and exposure to many new challenges and experiences that shaped me. Today, I'm very happy as managing director of the Affordable Learning Fund. Entrepreneurs have a huge ability to create positive change in education. I am playing a catalytic role in that ecosystem.

SDB: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Katelyn Donnelly: I'm most proud of the work I've done in Pakistan.  About four years ago I signed up for a project to work with the Education Department of Pakistan to implement an action plan or "roadmap" to achieve significant improvement in enrollment, retention and quality in primary education.  I was placed at the department to build a strong relationship with the officials and to ensure implementation of the action plan.

Over the next eight months I worked hand in hand with the education department to draft legislation, set targets, analyze data, plan training sessions, solve problems, visit schools and report progress to the chief minister.  We worked in collaboration to set targets for each of the 36 districts and to set up a data system to collect information on progress to meet those targets.

Each month you could feel tangible change building and the momentum for progress increasing. Within a year and a half, we had achieved tremendous results, including one million more children in school, and teacher attendance rates had increased 10 percent.

Additionally, we were conducting a follow-up training with the 36 district education managers to help them lead their districts and deliver on their targets.  At the end of the training, one of education managers turned to me and said, "Thank you for your faith that Pakistan can stand up proudly and take its place among the nations."

I’m proud to have achieved such significant results over a short amount of time and to have unlocked the potential of the system to deliver. I still visit Pakistan every two months to check in with the officials.

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?

Katelyn Donnelly: Every step of the way there have been obstacles or challenges.  I think the biggest obstacles in any situation are a loss of confidence or self doubt.

My advice for others is that you should realize that you control your own destiny.  Set high goals for yourself and work back from there to break the challenge into small, surmountable steps.

When something isn't working, don't look for external factors to blame, instead diagnose accurately and honestly what is holding you back and then work through that issue. You are the only person who can make your dreams reality.

SDB: Educating the world sounds pretty overwhelming.  How do you avoid apathy in the midst of so much need?

Katelyn Donnelly: It is a huge challenge.  Whenever I visit a potential investment, or consult with a new government, I always visit the schools and talk with the students and parents.  When I see the visceral desire for a better life through education coming from both parents and students, I know that it matters to that individual, and I feel motivated by the knowledge that I can help create opportunity and a better world for those people.

Thanks for reading Sam’s Dream Blog!  Learn more about Katelyn Donnelly and Pearson here. Check back with SDB for the next feature on July 8.