What kids need: A disruptive influence

Alejandro Gac-Artigas is a 24-year-old founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative, a comprehensive summer reading program. The idea is to prevent students from losing reading skills when they are not in school.
Alejandro Gac-Artigas is a 24-year-old founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative, a comprehensive summer reading program. The idea is to prevent students from losing reading skills when they are not in school.
Posted: October 28, 2012

When Bobby Kennedy ran his star-crossed campaign for president in 1968, he'd close his rallies with a line from George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?' "

Over the last couple of months, I've been surveying young Philadelphians in search of similar "disruptive" behavior, and am happy to report that the urge to ask "why not," by boldly reimagining old models, is alive and well in our town, though it has yet to be fully embraced by the tired practitioners of the way things have always been.

Take 24-year-old Alejandro Gac-Artigas, founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative, a comprehensive summer reading program that has the potential to eradicate the achievement gap that is torpedoing so many of our schools and inhibiting our ability to compete globally. Three years ago, Gac-Artigas was a Teach for America first-grade teacher at North Philadelphia's Pan American Academy Charter School.

He noticed that it took 83 school days - nearly until Thanksgiving - for "his kids," as he calls them, just to get back to the reading level they'd attained the previous spring. He'd stumbled onto the "summer slide" phenomenon, in which low-income students lose considerable ground in the summer months due to the lack of continued access to learning. By eighth grade, these summer reading losses add up to a two-year differential between low- and high-income students, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which calls the summer slide the "major reason the achievement gap grows through the elementary years."

So what did this precocious teacher do? Instead of either throwing up his hands in defeat or resigning himself to fighting the good fight in the trenches - either of which would be understandable and both of which would be a tacit acceptance of the status quo - Gac-Artigas procured an internship at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., started engaging the best minds in organizational problem-solving, and developed a new approach.

That's in keeping with Gac-Artigas' biography: his father, a Chilean playwright (who was a political prisoner in Pinochet's Chile), and mother, a Puerto Rican professor, raised a prodigy and entrepreneur. Gac-Artigas was already a published author by age 12, having penned Yo, Alejandro, a moving memoir of his childhood immigrant experience. He skipped first grade because he was already reading at a highly advanced level; years later, he'd use that fact in his North Philadelphia classroom. "I'd tell my kids this is my first crack at first grade, so we're in this adventure together," he says. He graduated from Harvard in 2009, before moving to Philly not only to teach but also to help challenge the very tenets of teaching.

Springboard Collaborative includes two innovative concepts: a parental training component and an incentive-based system for both students and teachers. Once a week, parents accompany students to a workshop to practice home reading skills. Teachers make visits to students' homes - earning bonuses based on how many such visits are made. Students have daily and weekly goals; if they meet them, they earn school supplies and books. If they exceed them, they get laptops. Teachers and students alike wear T-shirts that read: "This Is Not Summer School."

"We're flipping the traditional dynamic," Gac-Artigas says. "Summer school has always been seen as punitive, and teachers have traditionally called home only when something is wrong. Springboard is an opportunity, not a punishment. And by partnering with parents, we're demonstrating our commitment up front, which makes it easier to reach out when something has gone wrong."

So how has it worked? Last summer's program, held in four schools and serving 340 students, duplicated the pilot program's result by turning the three-month backslide in reading ability into an average 2.8-month gain. More than 90 percent of parents attended the workshops - an 80 percent gain from other school functions.

To date, the program has been tried only in charter schools: Pan American, Russell Byers in Center City, Wissahickon in Northwest Philly, and Belmont in West Philly. But that doesn't mean the program has been able to self-select the most engaged students and parents. The students were those furthest behind in reading skills - a grouping that, not surprising, correlates with the parents who are least involved with their kids' education. For many parents attending the Springboard workshops, it was their first visit to their child's school.

So why not roll Springboard out beyond charters? After all, it's immensely cost-effective: Nationally, schools spend $2,000 per student per summer program. Springboard's costs work out to $700 per student - thanks, in part, to private contributions from the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, the Fels Fund, and, most recently, the William Penn Foundation. (There's that disrupter Jeremy Nowak again.)

But charters have the entrepreneurial flexibility to experiment; sprawling public school behemoths, such as the Philadelphia School District, do not. Gac-Artigas has met with School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos, who was impressed by him. "Alejandro is a real talent," Ramos says. As for expansion of Springboard district-wide, Ramos says, "I don't know what his capacity is. But he seems to be accomplishing something important."

I'm no education expert. But I know that vast, intransigent systems turn like tankers, and often need outside forces to help steer a new course. I'm hoping that someone like Gac-Artigas, with his limitless energy and refusal to settle for the way things are, will be invited by Ramos and the powers-that-be to the problem-solving table. We need a new establishment: Here's to letting disrupters like Alejandro Gac-Artigas be part of it.


Larry Platt's column appears regularly in Currents. He can be reached at larry.platt@gmail.com.

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