Teacher noticed something horrible—others just shrugged—he flips their world upside down

“Growing up in a household that was short on money but long on ambition taught me two things that remain at the heart of my work today..."
April 6, 2018 12:05 pm Last Updated: April 8, 2018 10:55 am
Two excited participants of The Springboard Collaborative program. (Photo Courtesy of The Springboard Collaborative)

Within the first three months back from summer break, two teachers at a North Philadelphia school found their student’s producing less than satisfactory reading levels with poor drive. One educator simply chalked it up to the ‘summer slide’ — the other saw it as an opportunity to make a drastic change.

Alejandro Gac-Artigas, a former first-grade teacher turned educational entrepreneur knows a thing or two about the notorious summer slide – and has known from personal experience.

Founder and CEO of The Springboard Collaborative, Alejandro Gac-Artigas speaking to staff. (The Springboard Collaborative)

Years before Gac-Artigas went on to build a foundation to support the pursuit of educational opportunities, he was just a child growing up in a household of two parents with a soft spot for theater.

Gac-Artigas’s father, a rebel playwright, met his soon-to-be wife, an actress while attending a theater festival. The pair fell in love with each other as much as they had their own craft but made the decision to forgo their dreams and move to the United States for the sake of Gac-Artigas and his sister’s educational opportunities.

“It’s the kind of sacrifice that only a parent would make,” Gac-Artigas said.

Only that sacrifice was only the beginning of many, as Gac-Artigas and his sister found themselves making do with what they could as they grew up in a low-income home.

Yet, while Gac-Artigas’ family may have been short on cash, they were not short on drive.

“Growing up in a household that was short on money but long on ambition taught me two things that remain at the heart of my work today,” Gac-Artigas said.

“A child’s education involves much more than just their schooling, [and] a parents’ love for their children is the single greatest, and most underutilized, natural resource in education.”

Two participants of The Springboard Collaborative happily read to each other. (Courtesy of The Springboard Collaborative)

Those very two statements carried Gac-Artigas out of poverty, into Harvard University, and eventually, Teach For America – a national group of teachers devoted to giving their all to low-income schools in order to afford them better opportunities in life.

But while in his first year of teaching, Gac-Artigas noticed a saddening trend in the dramatic drop of his students’ reading levels from the start of the school year in September, up until the end of November.

“I asked other teachers, what’s going on?”

“[The teachers] shrugged and said, ‘that’s just the summer slide’ — as if it were a law of nature that growing up poor, for every two steps you take forward during the school year, you’ll take a step back during the summer,” he said.

But Gac-Artigas refused to accept his students’ fate, as well as what could be the fate for many other impoverished children.

He founded The Springboard Collaborative – a project geared towards tackling literacy crisis by closing the gap between what happens between home and school, especially by immersing parents directly within their children’s reading habits.

“Through home visits, weekly workshops, individualized home reading plans, and regular communication, The Springboard helps schools reach levels of family engagement many had never thought possible,” Gac-Artigas said.

Since its creation six years ago, The Springboard Collaborative has reached out to over 5,000 families and participating schools from Philadelphia to California.

Family workshop attendance reached 91 percent nationally, and just last summer alone student’s who originally experienced the 3-month ‘summer slide’ instead gained a 3 1/5 month reading gain.

(Photo courtesy of The Springboard Collaborative) A parent and teacher aid share a laugh during The Springboard pilot.

During the pilot of The Springboard Collaborative in 2011, Gac-Artigas gathered four teachers and 42 students alongside their parents at a Pan American Charter School.

Throughout the program, parents read colorful and educational books to their child, while getting coaching tips from the teaching aids.

They had filmed the pilot program, during which one mother stated she was “surprised when [she] saw her daughter, Aliyah was not where she ought to be” considering her reading levels.

But reading with her—the mother soon realized it was because she wasn’t supplying Aliyah with the proper books.

“I’m so glad I did the [the program, which] gave me tools I can use throughout the year [and] I feel better knowing I now have the tools to help her succeed,” Aliyah’s mother said.

Principal of the Pan American Charter School, Darcy Russutto, also found herself impressed with the turnout of the program, and the involvement of the attending parents.

“There were parents I had never seen before coming weekly and really getting excited about being in school with their children,” stated Russutto.

Alejandro Gac-Artigas at an Entrepreneurship and Networking session. (Courtesy of Storify)

Now the program was succeeding—and growing. But then Gac-Artigas had a moment that pushed him to evolve as well, and reminded him to stay true to his passion.

“In 2011, I was at a crossroads. I had just piloted Springboard Summer, and the problem finally felt solvable — on the other hand, I had a job offer at McKinsey,” Gac-Artigas stated.

“I went to my father for advice [and] ultimately decided to turn down financial stability to pursue my dream — years later, my dad gave me a framed letter for my 25th birthday [telling] a story he had written to announce my birth,” Gac-Artigas said.

That very letter involved a Chilean man asking a wise countrywoman what he should wish for his newborn son; the man eventually wishes: “when my son sees a caged bird, may he set it free. And may the example inspire others to follow,” Gac-Artigas explained.

His father had explained to him, “’I didn’t weigh in on your decision, because I wanted to see if my wish would come true’ — that letter is my most prized possession,” Gac-Artigas said.