Alejandro Gac-Artigas thinks America's public schools have been squandering a potent resource.
He's the young founder of the Springboard Collaborative, which runs a promising summer reading program in Philadelphia and other cities.
What, in his view, is that underused asset?
A parent's love.
"A child's education involves much more than just their schooling," Gac-Artigas says. "Parents' love and advocacy for their kids is the single best predictor of children's success."
It's an insight drawn from his own childhood, a tale of boundless parental love at times stifled by blinkered official attitudes.
Gac-Artigas' father was a Chilean playwright and director who was imprisoned and tortured for standing up to the brutal Pinochet regime. His mother was an actress from Puerto Rico.
They met in Paris, married and had two children. Seeking opportunity for Alejandro and his sister, they gave up their theater careers and emigrated to America.
You'd think parents with that kind of commitment to learning would be a faculty's dream.
Yet, as Gac-Artigas remembers it, his parents — with their hard-to-pronounce names, halting English, and fierce dreams for their kids — got cast by some educators as "problem parents."
The dreams, in the end, still soared above the rocks. Gac-Artigas went to Harvard. But some of the hurt lingered.
Later, diploma in hand, he landed a Teach for America gig in Philadelphia's Kensington section. There, he was struck by a paradox.
Looking at his students' parents, who looked much like his own, the young teacher glimpsed the same dogged love his parents had lavished on him.
Despite that, his students' achievement lagged. They fell victim to the notorious "summer slide" — reading levels eroding sharply between June and September.
He felt some fellow teachers greeted this syndrome with a "what can you do?" shrug. He resolved not to treat the slide as a regrettable law of nature. Instead, he yearned to fix it.
The fruits of Gac-Artigas' resolve were on display one recent morning at Independence Charter School in Center City. A stream of grade schoolers and adults — clad alike in royal blue T-shirts — flowed up the steps and into freshly painted classrooms. There, they were greeted with lively posters, rows of books, and smiling teachers in lime-green T-shirts emblazoned with the motto: "Ask ?s before, during and after reading."
This was the weekly adult workshop of Springboard Collaborative's summer reading program. Springboard, which Gac-Artigas founded in 2012 in Philadelphia, now serves 1,300 students in Philly, Camden, Washington, and several Bay Area cities.
Springboard's summer sessions include days when a parent — or some other adult in a child's life, a Pop-Pop, an abuela, an older brother — sits by the child's side at a pint-sized table, reading with them and getting tips on how to turn reading into a nourishing home ritual.
On this day, the tips echoed the T-shirt's slogan: how to ask your child questions about a book.
During a break, Catherine Williams of Southwest Philly said she was excited about the things she's learning to do with her rising first-grade son, Marcus. "Now I have a new set of skills. Like making predictions about a book — I had never thought of that. These things are very exciting to me. I take them home to my sister and my nephew, so the skills don't just go to me, they go to the whole family."
Aubrey White, Springboard's chief strategy officer, said the literacy techniques Springboard uses are all research-tested.
"It's nothing groundbreaking; the reason it works is we do simple things well," she says. "The real magic is in the growth of the child's self-image as a reader and the parent building that up at home."
Springboard's data show its participants get what White calls a "six-month lift." Not only do they not lose three months' in reading level — no "summer slide" — but they return in September three months ahead of where they were in June.
At a school like Independence, their teachers may also have enhanced their skills. Most of the time, Springboard uses schools' own teachers to lead the summer sessions, making it more likely they'll sustain the techniques Springboard teaches.
What's the other ingredient in Springboard's secret sauce? Steady, respectful engagement with the adults in a child's life, enlisting their love as a catalyst to achievement.
Parent Alicia Bey of Point Breeze has noticed the difference. "If you come, and the teacher is just there to teach the lesson and get through it, that's one thing," she notes. "It's another if you are excited and recognize me and act like you're glad I'm there — that you see me, you're paying me some mind."
Springboard is beginning to earn national notice. Gac-Artigas now confronts a core challenge of educational reform: taking a successful pilot to scale.
"Ten million K-3, low-income kids aren't reading at grade level; prison planners use fourth-grade reading scores to forecast capacity needs," he says. "Still, our ambition is to solve the problem at the enormous scale at which it exists. We're trying to make sure our program delivers the same outcome, no matter where we find the population."
The nonprofit is looking at solutions such as building a reading tips app for use by parents — dubbed Springboard@Home — and developing materials for teachers to use during the school year.
Above all, Gac-Artigas hopes Springboard can help its animating principle — enlisting parents as partners — go viral.
"We're thinking a lot about tipping points," he says. "How many teachers in a school need to get the value of parental engagement to tip the culture? If we can now prove that parents can teach, the field will be transformed."