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