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Meet The Problem-Solver

26-year-old Alejandro Gac-Artigas, CEO & Founder of Springboard Collaborative, is disrupting local education — and getting results.

Alejandro Gac-Artigas knew his first graders could do better than this—after all, they had been reading at a higher level at the end of kindergarten, the previous June. It was now October, 2009, and Gac-Artigas—a first time Teach for America teacher at North Philly’s Pan American Academy Charter School—was struggling to get them through the basics. “It was not until November 28th—83 days into the year—that their reading levels finally caught up to where they had been before the summer,” Gac-Artigas recalls.

Alejandro Gac-Artigas
Alejandro Gac-Artigas

That was when Gac-Artigas realized that many of his students hadn’t looked at a book all summer—and had effectively regressed. This, he learned, is the “summer slide”: A common problem in low-income communities, where children often lack continuous access to learning at home and at school, which is responsible for not just six months of academic backsliding but years of learning difficulties. Compounded annually, it is, quite literally, the achievement gap.

Gac-Artigas set out to find a solution. He took an internship at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., engaged the best minds in organizational problem-solving, and developed a new approach. In 2011, when he was 22, Gac-Artigas started Springboard Collaborative as a summer program in charter schools to help students and families continue reading throughout the summer. Since then, Springboard has expanded into a year-round program offered in public, charter and Catholic schools, with a message for teachers and parents alike: We can’t treat our students’ families as liabilities, but  must instead make them partners in their children’s educations.

“Only 13 percent percent of Philadelphia 4th graders are proficient in reading; 10 percent earn a college degree. Philadelphia’s adult illiteracy rate of 22 percent matches the city’s poverty rate. This is the cycle ensnaring our city. The triangle between teachers, parents and students is broken.”

Springboard has served hundreds of kids, received $250,000 in funding from the School District and grants from the M. Night Shyamalan and William Penn foundations, received national attention—and significantly improved the ability of its students to read. The program has expanded from Philadelphia and now serves Camden, New Jersey, with further expansions planned. Just one recent example: Thirteen percent of students entered Springboard’s pre-K program ready to read, according to the program’s assessment. Five weeks after completing the program in summer 2014, 63 percent of the 62 pilot students were reading-ready.

“There was an electric energy in the pre-kindergarten classrooms, so we are going to continue to roll this out as our offering this year,” Gac-Artigas says. “The earlier you intervene, the greater the return on investment.”

Here, Gac-Artigas shares more about Springboard Collaborative’s work.

THE CITIZEN: What is the genesis and mission of Springboard Collaborative?

Alejandro Gac-Artigas: I came to Philadelphia in 2009 as a first-grade teacher. The biggest problem my kids were having was not with what happened during the school year but with what did not happen during the summer. Kids in low income communities don’t have continuous access to learning at home and school.

Springboard Collaborative trains parents and teachers to collaborate in order close a student’s reading achievement gap.  Our model has three components:

1) we coach teachers in data driven instruction to lead pre-kindergarten to third graders toward reading growth goals;

2) we train parents to be their child’s reading teacher at home

3) we award educational incentives in proportion to student reading gains.

THE CITIZEN: How stark are the summer reading comprehension losses?.

AG: Research out of Johns Hopkins found that during the course of the summer, kids in low-income communities lose three months of reading progress. This is problematic not just in the magnitude of the loss, but also in terms of the opportunity cost as the first three months of school are spent catching up rather than making forward progress. These losses compound year after year after year. The Hopkins study found that 2/3 of the achievement gap we see in high school is attributable to summer learning loss in elementary school alone.

This is an important problem to fix early because 3rd grade marks a critical transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Until 4th grade, students are learning how to look at letters and make sense of the words. By 4th grade, reading has become the primary medium through which students learn subsequent disciplines. Children that fail to make this transition experience diminishing returns through the rest of their education. How can you learn chemistry if you cannot read the textbook? As these kids grow up, their 4th grade reading ability is among the strongest predictors of future outcomes.

How does the story play out for our kids? A student who can’t read on grade level by 4th grade is four times more likely to drop out of high school than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times more likely to drop out than his or her proficient, wealthier peer. Only 13 percent of Philadelphia 4th graders are proficient in reading; 10 percent earn a college degree. How does the story end? Look at it this way: Philadelphia’s adult illiteracy rate of 22 percent matches precisely the city’s poverty rate of 22 percent. This is the cycle ensnaring our city, and it stems from the fact that the triangle between teachers, parents, and students is broken.

THE CITIZEN: Why are parents a crucial element of the program?

AG: Children spend 75 percent of their waking hours outside of the classroom, yet our nation does shockingly little to capture educational value from this time for low-income kids. Our system treats their families as liabilities, rather than assets.

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 out of school.

In low-income communities, the triangle is broken. Our educational 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.You can’t close the achievement gap without engaging children’s biggest influencers.

Family engagement is a central part of Springboard’s approach because families—more than anyone—have a deeply vested interest in their child’s ability to read in order to access life opportunities. We believe the hardwired love a parent has for their child is the single greatest, most powerful natural resource in a child’s education. This commitment predates and underlies all of the structures and relationships we construct and pay for in our public education system. Springboard draws from the deep well of family engagement to leverage this natural resource to close the reading achievement gap.

“Our system treats students’ families as liabilities, rather than assets. We believe the hardwired love a parent has for their child is the single greatest, most powerful natural resource in a child’s education.”

THE CITIZEN: How do you get parents and teachers on the same page?

AG: Parents and teachers share a common goal: student educational success. They also have complementary skillsets that enable each other to reach this goal: Teachers are the experts on instruction. They know what their students need in order to improve their reading levels. However, the classroom setting makes it difficult to individually support every child.

Parents are the experts on their children. Whereas teachers change every year, parents accumulate a wealth of knowledge about their children as learners. Moreover, parents have the unique ability to read with their children in a one-on-one setting; there is no smaller classroom than a family’s living room.

These competencies form the basis for an efficient partnership in which teachers share instructional strategies with parents in exchange for the commitment that families will use these strategies at home and return with meaningful observations.

Springboard facilitates this partnership by first training teachers to lead home visits, during which they will jumpstart a partnership with families. Teachers then use our curriculum to lead weekly workshops that train parents to select appropriate books and ask questions before, during, and after reading. Springboard also provides a parent-teacher communication tool (existing as a workbook as well as a web-to-text tool) and an online library to maximize productivity between workshops.

THE CITIZEN: How do parents and kids learn about and enroll in the program?

AG: Contractually every school we partner with enrolls their own students. They select the kids that are reading furthest behind grade level expectations. We also use the teachers from within each school.

Springboard’s model is about transforming schools from within by putting their existing assets—teachers, parents, students, and dollars—into a more optimal arrangement. Simply put, Springboard builds capacity by training the existing teachers to collaborate with the existing parents using (to the greatest extent possible) the existing dollars.

We do this because we believe school communities can get so much more from the resources they already have. We also created a system in which families can enroll one another. For every additional family they enrolled, their children would receive an additional book. This helped us to meet to target enrollment.

THE CITIZEN: Does the School District of Philadelphia support the program?

AG: In 2013, we entered into a vendor agreement with the School District of Philadelphia. This was a big win to have the District invest $250,000 in a start-up, considering the budget difficulties. As far as I can tell it is the first time the School District invested in a start-up and it makes Springboard the only summer-learning provider funded by the SDP. It was a great opportunity to take what we had been building in charter schools and replicate it in the District.

“The conversation around education is political, vitriolic, and toxic. Many stakeholders have been locked in a tug-of-war match so long that it’s easy to lose sight of what direction you are pulling in and why you’re even pulling. The silver lining is that because Philly has so many challenges it forces us to be entrepreneurial. It also requires ingenuity since this is not a problem you can simply throw money at.”

THE CITIZEN: What role does data play?

AG: One of our core values is to be outcomes-oriented and data-driven. Data is what we live and breathe in order to make smarter decisions in a complicated field. In our programming, we train teachers on using assessment data to identify barriers that are keeping a student from making progress and to design classroom and parent interventions to help them overcome the barriers. At the school level, Springboard Site Managers use data to support teachers and target classroom interventions. At the network level, Springboard Cluster Managers use data to create school action plans to ensure every school in their “cluster” reaches performance targets.

THE CITIZEN: How many students do you have and what are your enrollment goals for the next few years?

AG: We started with 42 students during our pilot phase. Last summer we had 1,200 kids at 17 sites, including District, charter, and Catholic partners. Our goal is to grow to more than 30 schools reaching more than 2,000 students in 2015 and double again in 2016.

THE CITIZEN: If you had to put a headline to the return on investment, what would it be?

AG: Springboard leverages community resources to more than double students’ annual reading progress. Our programming builds schools’ internal capacity in four ways:

  •         We develop children as readers by replacing chronic summer learning losses with significant and lasting reading gains.
  •         We develop parents as teachers by training and equipping family members to be effective reading coaches, enabling schools to capture educational value from the place kids spend 75 percent of their waking hours: home.
  •         We develop teachers as instructors by leading professional development and a 5-week coaching cycle on data-driven instruction and family engagement.
  •         We develop Site Managers as leaders by guiding them through a management training program.

THE CITIZEN: What challenges are there to being a Philadelphia Education innovator?

AG: There are many challenges to being an education innovator in Philly, though many of them can also be viewed as opportunities. The conversation around education is political, vitriolic and toxic. Schools are resource-starved, making it difficult to make forward-looking investments. Many stakeholders have been locked in a tug-of-war match so long that it’s easy to lose sight of what direction you are pulling in and why you’re even pulling. This climate has made most people fairly risk-averse. Being an education entrepreneur you have to be comfortable working in a headwind.

The silver lining is that because Philly has so many challenges—and the enormity of the need is so great—it forces us to be entrepreneurial by necessity. Innovation in Philly requires doing more with less. It also requires ingenuity since this is not a problem you can simply throw money at. There are gaps everywhere, creating a big need to think differently. You grow up as a lean organization by necessity, which benefits you in the long run. As we expand to a second city, making the program work in a place like Philly gives you some real credibility to argue that you have a turnkey, cost-effective solution.

THE CITIZEN: Anything else you would like to share about Springboard Collaborative?

AG: We are really excited about our pre-kindergarten pilot program, focusing on kids who are entering Kindergarten without having had access to Pre-K. Teachers are spending a disproportionate amount of their time remediating for these kids, making it difficult for the whole class to move forward. From the parents’ perspective, they are eagerly trying to figure out how to transition from being the parent of a child to being the parent of a student.

This an updated and expanded version of an interview that appeared on Open Education last year.

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