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One Educator Has The Secret For Helping Struggling Readers Succeed

(August 16th, 2019): 

A social entrepreneur, drawing on his background as an immigrant, believes he has found an untapped resource to help more struggling students succeed in reading. The secret? Families.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What if you could change your child's future in just one hour a week? One educator says there's a secret weapon out there to help struggling students - their families. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has the story.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: We're at Girls Prep Lower East Side. It's a single-sex charter school in downtown Manhattan. And a roomful of dads and moms are crammed into little chairs alongside their daughters.

SAPHIRA: (Reading) Hey, that's - it fair.

GERREN: That what? OK. Hey...

SAPHIRA: (Reading) Hey, that isn't fair, said Toady (ph).

GERREN: Todd (ph).

SAPHIRA: Todd.

KAMENETZ: Saphira (ph) is going into the fourth grade at Girls Prep in the fall, and she's been falling behind in reading. So this summer, for five weeks, she's making the hour-and-a-half trek each way from her home in the Bronx to try to catch up. And what makes this summer reading program different for many others is that once a week, her father Gerren (ph), who works as a private driver, attends with her.

GERREN: Where are you? I forgot where you were.

KAMENETZ: Alejandro Gibes de Gac, the founder of this program, Springboard Collaborative, calls parents...

ALEJANDRO GIBES DE GAC: The single greatest and most underutilized natural resource in education.

KAMENETZ: Gibes de Gac's parents brought him to the United States in search of better schools. His father was a playwright imprisoned for his political views in Chile. His mother, a teacher, was born in Puerto Rico. With their support, he made it to Harvard, then Teach for America in Philadelphia.

GIBES DE GAC: And I was teaching in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. I saw myself in my students. I saw my parents in their parents.

KAMENETZ: He says, when he was growing up...

GIBES DE GAC: To my teachers, they were just pushy immigrants with bad English.

KAMENETZ: Gibes de Gac believes families don't have to be educated or fluent in English to actively support their children's learning. To prove it, he held his first Springboard workshop eight years ago at the school where he taught in Philadelphia. Springboard now runs summer and afterschool programs in 12 cities. They give away free books and backpacks full of school supplies and tablets as incentives to the families.

In just five weeks, on average, 3 out of 4 students get to the next reading level or even further. Plus, when Springboard follows up six months later, they find families are still reading together more often than before. Gibes de Gac says this works even though...

GIBES DE GAC: About a third of the families we work with don't have access to the text their child is holding.

KAMENETZ: That's because many like Saphira have parents who are immigrants - in her case, from Antigua and Trinidad. Each Springboard session starts with a home visit by a teacher. Kira Wheelan (ph) visited Saphira's home in the Bronx.

KIRA WHEELAN: Hello. Hi, Saphira.

SAPHIRA: Hi, Ms. Wheelan.

WHEELAN: How are you?

SAPHIRA: Good.

WHEELAN: You look so cute.

KAMENETZ: Teachers come in to ask for parents' partnership. Gibes de Gac says it's a two-way promise.

GIBES DE GAC: The parent promises the child, here's how much and how often I'm going to read with you together.

KAMENETZ: And the child promises the parent that they will read more on their own as well. Those promises are powerful. Gibes de Gac says, on average, 9 out of 10 families come to every single workshop, whether it's mom, dad, grandma, an older sibling or a combination. Saphira's dad, Gerren, has been here each time, as his wife has been working. He can see the improvement.

GERREN: So far, so good. I mean, she's doing really well. I think she already went up half a level.

KAMENETZ: Saphira's not so enthusiastic about spending her summer mornings inside.

SAPHIRA: It's OK.

KAMENETZ: But she admits it seems to be working.

SAPHIRA: When I'm reading, it sounds more better every time. It sounds better because I know most of the words.

KAMENETZ: Springboard is expanding to new cities. They're also producing an app. And Gibes de Gac hopes to inspire other educators to see family engagement through whole new eyes as a major lever to transform learning.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.