The son of Chilean and Puerto Rican immigrant parents who had escaped political persecution in coming to the U.S., Alejandro quickly realized that the American dream of a quality education was not necessarily as accessible to low-income children of color in the same way it was for their white peers. It was this epiphany that helped to ignite Alejandro’s lifelong mission to rehabilitate the educational system, and a major part of the reason he founded Springboard Collaborative.

A data-driven and community based immersive experience, Springboard works to provide parents, guardians and family members with the training and resources they need in order to support children in learning outside of the classroom. NationSwell spoke to Alejandro about how developing schools’ leadership pipelines and delivering one-on-one literacy support can help support communities and how Springboard is endeavoring to close the literacy gap and make schools a more equitable place for low-income children.

NationSwell: What inspired you to form Springboard, and what is it about reforming the educational system that feels personal to you?

Springboard Collaborative CEO and founder Alejandro Gibes de Gac: The school system was constantly putting barriers in our way and constantly trying to keep our parents shut out of the process, even all the way up through senior year of high school. When I was applying to Harvard, the guidance counselor tried to talk me out of it so that I could avoid the disappointment of rejection, and then seemed pretty disappointed to see my acceptance letter. 

I share all of that because growing up in a home with little money but lots of love taught me firsthand that parents’ love for their children is the single greatest, and also the most underutilized natural resource in education. I took that perspective with me into teaching: I was a first grade teacher in North Philadelphia, teaching in a Puerto Rican neighborhood where I saw myself and my kids, I saw my parents, and pretty quickly I became frustrated that the same scenario from my childhood was playing out. 

Our school system approached black and brown parents like mine as liabilities, rather than as the assets that they are. Kids spend 75 percent of their waking hours outside of the classroom, and I realized that if we don’t find a way to help parents and teachers work together to give kids access to learning across the continuum of home and school, then we’re never going to close the achievement gap, let alone the opportunity gap. 

So, long story short, that’s why I started Springboard a decade ago: To close the literacy gap by closing the gap between home and school. And the way that we do that is by coaching parents and teachers to team up to work together to accelerate student learning.

NS: What are some of the methods you utilize in order to improve literacy in communities, and has that strategy changed at all during the pandemic?

Gibes de Gac: Our work has evolved pretty significantly during the pandemic, but the easiest way to think about it is three concentric spheres, the smallest of which is our direct impact. That’s springboard delivering intensive programs, which we’ve done since Day 1, and what they look like are 5-10 week summer and after school programs that combine personalized reading instruction for K-third graders with weekly workshops that equip parents to support learning at home and professional development so that they can help to sustain that habit over the long run. 

The problem that we’re trying to solve affects millions and millions of kids, and about two years ago we challenged ourselves to make the shift from direct to widespread impact, which is the second sphere. It’s really about codifying our playbook and training others to run programs much more independently much more affordably. You can think of it like a train-the-trainer model; it basically took out two thirds of the cost, but we’re still getting seventy five percent of the impact of the original model, and it’s been invaluable for us to scale our impact more quickly and more nimbly. 

As I mentioned, the problem affects millions of kids, and you don’t get to that order of magnitude without changing the system more broadly. So that third sphere of systemic impact is really where we’re innovating, and our focus is on widespread impact right now. But what we’re trying to figure out is how you change the education sector broadly so that parent-teacher collaboration is the rule, not the exception. 

Thanks to Covid, a few things have seismically shifted the education sector, and one of them is just a greater appreciation for the essential role that parents play in their childrens’ learning. School closures really kind of made it plain to see how important learning at home is. When it comes to educating kids, there’s no going around parents. Schools have to work with them in order to ensure that kids are learning. That was true long before the pandemic happened, but when you combine that with the fact that school closures have disproportionately affected children of color and children from low income families, with this massive influx of federal funding to help kids recover, that’s led to surging demand for our programs. So that for us is the name of the game right now – helping to meet that demand and support districts across the country in their efforts to help marginalized kids recover, especially as it relates to literacy. 

The most exciting recent update is that just last week we got a three-year, $17 million contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District to help 23,000 kids accelerate their literacy gains and get back on track. We’re having conversations like that across the country, which is both exciting, because it’s so important for the marginalized kids and families that make up our target population, and a little daunting to keep up with that demand and raise sufficient growth capital so that we can keep our foot on the accelerator rather than tap the breaks.

NS: What advice do you have for others on how they can better act with a clear sense of purpose?

Gibes de Gac: I think at least for me, it’s finding a problem that you care so deeply about that you can’t help but to solve it. Something that, come hell or high water, you will continue to stick with that problem. 

Finding that problem, though, is sometimes easier said than done. It’s hard to find the problem that you care most deeply about from the 52nd floor of your office building, so also just immersing yourself in circumstances where you’re likely to encounter problems until you meet the problem that you want to commit to. 

Once you find the problem, you roll your sleeves up and the challenge becomes, how do I understand this problem more deeply than anyone before me. Intractable problems require solutions, and you’re unlikely to come up with a better idea than the zillion people who’ve come before you. You can try to reach some new and nuanced understanding of the root cause, and if you do that, then and only then can you get to a solution that’s worth growing.