Breakthrough Leader Alejandro Gibes de Gac of Springboard Collaborative
"Springboard’s goal is not simply to serve as many children as possible. It’s to transform the American education system as it’s being rebuilt. To carve 'parent engagement' into the foundation before the cement dries."
We caught up with Alejandro Gibes de Gac, Founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative, a New Profit grantee-partner, to talk about his organization, his vision for the post-COVID-19 future, and why he does this work. Springboard Collaborative closes the literacy gap by closing the gap between home and School. The organization coaches teachers and families on how to nurture reading habits among pre-K to 3rd-grade students in underserved communities so that they have the skills needed to access life opportunities.
What is the big, transformative vision behind Springboard?
If there is a silver lining in the way that COVID-19 brought schools to a grinding halt, it’s that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent a broken system. Let’s not create the digital clone of a system that didn’t work in the first place. Learning at home is as pressing a need as it has ever been, which means that this is our best—and perhaps only—chance to weave parent engagement into the fabric of our education system. Springboard’s goal is not simply to serve as many children as possible. It’s to transform the American education system as it’s being rebuilt. To carve “parent engagement” into the foundation before the cement dries.
But how? A recent study finds that “when 25% of people in a group adopt a new social norm, it creates a tipping point where the entire group follows suit.” If Springboard can help 25% of teachers within schools and 25% of schools within districts to experience success with family engagement, we can change the education system for the better and for good. This means training 20,000 teachers to successfully implement Springboard’s core methodology, through which educators and families team up to help kids reach learning goals in five-ten weeks. We call these goal-setting cycles Family-Educator Learning Accelerators (or FELAs). In the beginning, teachers and parents build a relationship, set a goal, and make a game plan together. Over 5-10 weeks, teachers and parents convene weekly or biweekly to share skills and strategies. On a daily basis, children work toward their goal by practicing with their teachers, with their families, and on their own. The cycle concludes by measuring progress and celebrating together. Small wins lead to big wins, and lasting habits for teachers and families alike.
Springboard’s goal is not simply to serve as many children as possible. It’s to transform the American education system as it’s being rebuilt. To carve 'parent engagement' into the foundation before the cement dries.
In so many ways, our nation is at a crossroads. Within our education system, this will play out one of two ways:
- Distance learning remains a fruitless and frustrating experience, cementing the education sector’s suspicions that low-income parents are incapable of teaching their kids. An entire generation of Black and Brown children falls through the cracks, and their parents are relegated back to the margins of the school system. ‘Learning at home’ is remembered as an artifact of school closures, and districts reach for the familiar set of classroom interventions that have for decades failed to move the needle.
- In an alternate reality, districts experience success working with families. Teachers and parents set goals, make plans, and support each other’s efforts. Distance learning isn’t an amorphous and interminable experience for parents; instead, families engage in short, approachable goal-setting cycles with teachers as teammates. As a result, Black and Brown children don’t just avoid the ‘COVID slide’—they reach learning goals! Of course, not everyone will have this experience. But just enough teachers and just enough schools experience the FELA method, catalyzing a culture shift that makes parent engagement a matter of course. Schools across the country become more equitable places, and a broken system begins to heal at long last.
We can either reinvent a school system that leverages families as assets or reproduce decades of failure and inequity. Let’s not leave it to chance. It took a long time for the education sector to embrace the idea that all children can learn. It is Springboard’s ambition—and our charge—to prove that all parents can teach.
Springboard’s mission is to close the literacy gap by closing the gap between home and school—coaching teachers and family members to help their children cultivate reading habits. Can you share a story of success?
Springboard’s partnership with Baltimore City Public schools offers a case study for how family engagement can drive student outcomes, equity, and systemic change.
In 2018, Springboard partnered with the district (BCPS) as they embarked on their ambitious Blueprint For Success. Together, Springboard and BCPS set out to build capacity in four ways:
- Help kids become stronger readers. Springboard’s 5-week Summer and 10-week Afterschool programs average a 4-month reading gain, closing the gap to grade-level performance by more than half.
- Equip parents to teach at home. Weekly family workshops average 91% attendance. Parents learn to be effective one-on-one literacy coaches at home, and they build habits that outlive programming.
- Develop teachers’ instructional practice. Teachers from within each school participate in Professional Learning Communities on differentiating instruction and engaging parents. They also receive coaching toward a professional growth goal of their choosing.
- Deepen the school leadership bench. At each school, a teacher-leader is hired from within to be the Site Leader, and Springboard coaches them through the management experience.
This partnership has demonstrated some of Springboard’s strongest results nationally. During our first summer together, district students replaced the typical 3-month summer reading loss with an incredible 4.3-month reading gain. Soon thereafter, word spread and nearly twenty additional school communities joined the next round of programming during the academic year. Participating K-2 students caught up to grade-level expectations—on average—in just 5 weeks.
And then COVID brought schools to a grinding halt. Springboard sprang into action in order to help parents and teachers make distance learning a fruitful and sustainable experience. We are now serving more than three times as many children—and ten times as many schools—as Springboard had ever reached in person. This includes cities like Baltimore as well as rural communities within which it had not previously been financially or operationally feasible to run programming. Springboard has even bigger plans for the upcoming school year!
COVID brought schools to a grinding halt. Springboard sprang into action in order to help parents and teachers make distance learning a fruitful and sustainable experience. We are now serving more than three times as many children—and ten times as many schools—as Springboard had ever reached in person.
How have you had to “pivot”, if at all, to address both COVID and the broader racial equity issues that are front and center in America right now?
COVID didn’t break Springboard’s model because we broke it ourselves last year. We set a goal that was deliberately unachievable with our flagship program model: to help 100,000 students reach reading goals—and 30,000 to read on grade level—by December 31, 2022.
We began aggressively innovating in order to scale Springboard’s impact exponentially, rather than fixating on incrementally growing our programmatic footprint. Logarithmic growth is the inevitable fate of most nonprofits. Eventually, direct-service organizations either run out of resources, or they get bogged down with ever-increasing complexity. In either case, their growth curve flattens well before making population-level impact.
At Springboard, we could wait decades to confront this reality, all the while patting ourselves on the back as a ‘high-performing nonprofit.’ However, Springboard’s goal is not to be a successful nonprofit. It’s to solve the problem at the scale at which it exists. We refuse to wait until our 25th anniversary gala to grapple with the fact that the problem is as big as it ever was.
Over the course of the last year, we launched a franchising model, an app to support learning at home, and virtual Professional Development for teachers. (All valuable things to have built in advance of a pandemic that, of course, we could not have predicted.) The most essential learning of all, though, was getting crystal clear on the underlying methodology driving impact within Springboard programs: Family-Educator Learning Accelerators. This has enabled us to play offense amidst the pandemic, rather than slowing down or scaling back.
By getting 25% of teachers within schools and 25% of schools within districts to experience success with the FELA method, Springboard can leverage the power of tipping points to make family engagement standard practice in education.
Of course, Springboard’s work is not just about academic progress; it is fundamentally about racial justice. Frederick Douglass wrote, “once you learn to read, you will forever be free.” This work is more critical than ever. Black and Brown students are being hit the hardest by the COVID slide, especially those who are developing foundational literacy skills. The most recent study from McKinsey estimates that Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months and Hispanic students by 9.2 months due to school closures. These effects can follow children for a lifetime, eclipsing their ability to ever fully realize their potential. McKinsey estimates that Black and Brown students may lose 15-18% of their lifetime earning potential as a direct result of COVID-19.
By getting 25% of teachers within schools and 25% of schools within districts to experience success with the FELA method, Springboard can leverage the power of tipping points to make family engagement standard practice in education. In doing so, we will help to close the opportunity gap by closing the gap between home and school. Moreover, we will make schools more equitable places that value parents as experts, invest in them as partners, and are accountable to families regardless of race or income.
What could be more personal than a parent and child sharing a book at bedtime? What matters most in a child’s life is their family. Not their school, and not their technology. Connections matter even more than connectivity. It’s time we began investing in parents.
How can we do better across the system to support parents as educators themselves?
How can we support parents as educators? First, we need to believe in them. We must value parents as their children’s first and best teachers. There is no smaller classroom than a family’s living room, and there is no better way to personalize instruction than through a parent. After all, what could be more personal than a parent and child sharing a book at bedtime? What matters most in a child’s life is their family. Not their school, and not their technology. Connections matter even more than connectivity. It’s time we began investing in parents.
Some will argue that most low-income parents are too overburdened to participate in their children’s learning. This perception does not match reality. Springboard’s weekly family workshops average 91% attendance — and these are the caregivers of over 10,000 struggling readers in 14 urban school districts. This summer, in fact, parents in DC Public Schools attended Springboard’s virtual workshops at a record-breaking rate of 99%. Families read an average of 101 books per student in just 5 weeks.
Even nonliterate parents with only 15 minutes to spare can help their children learn to read. Approximately one-third of the families that Springboard serves can’t read the book their child is holding, because of either a literacy or language barrier. Nevertheless, these parents help their children make a 3.1-month reading gain in just five weeks. How? By engaging their kids in dialogue, asking questions before, during, and after reading. An analysis of nearly 10 million students found that 15 minutes seems to be the “magic number” for substantial positive gains in reading achievement. Amidst school closures, Springboard families have been averaging 26+ daily minutes of reading at home!
As a system, we must upskill parents and teachers to support learning at home. In a recent survey, families say they’re more worried about their children’s learning than even their ability to pay the bills. And parents’ single biggest unmet need is “personalized guidance to support learning at home.” Black and Brown parents are demanding help. Our country owes it to them.
Who has helped you along the way on your path to becoming a social entrepreneur?
In 2011, I was at a crossroads.
I had just piloted Springboard, and the problem finally felt solvable. On the other hand, I had a job offer at McKinsey & Company that could provide my family with financial stability.
I went to my father for advice, but he kept uncharacteristically quiet. Ultimately, I decided to turn down the money and pursue my dream.
Years later, my dad gave me a framed letter for my 25th birthday. It was a story he had written to announce my birth. In it, a Chilean man asks a wise countrywoman what he should wish for his newborn son. Eventually, he wishes: “when my son sees a caged bird, may he set it free. And may the example inspire others to follow.”
“I didn’t weigh in on your decision,” my dad explained, “because I wanted to see if my wish would come true.”
What is inspiring you right now to keep pushing in your work and the broader movement for social justice?
I’m inspired by the families Springboard serves. In the face of enormous adversity, parents remain more determined than ever to give their kids a great education… themselves. This quote is from a father that participated in Springboard’s partnership with Teach For America. Nearly 3,000 corps members—the entirety of TFA’s 2020 cohort—implemented Springboard’s methodology as part of their summer teacher training.
“My son had his first session today with Ms. Serena. I was in the same room (but kept my mouth shut the entire time). It was an amazing session and so wonderful to see my son engaged with his teacher. It was especially meaningful because he basically dropped out of Pre-K in March after we moved to distance learning. He has hated his Zoom classes, never participated, talked about how boring they were, and we had to fight him to attend. Today with Ms. Serena he was peppy and alive and full of confidence. It was AMAZING to see (I was almost moved to tears). Thank you SO much for this program and the opportunity. I want to raise a confident reader who loves learning and I feel like you’ve put a program in place to make that happen. THANK YOU!”
As a system, we must upskill parents and teachers to support learning at home. In a recent survey, families say they’re more worried about their children’s learning than even their ability to pay the bills. And parents’ single biggest unmet need is 'personalized guidance to support learning at home.' Black and Brown parents are demanding help. Our country owes it to them.