The immigrant students in Stamford, Connecticut, were thriving. In grade schools across the midsize city, where roughly 35% of residents are foreign-born, these non-native English speakers would routinely receive rows of As and Bs on their report cards. They’d come home with high marks and exclamation points scribbled in red ink.
But when those same students took the state’s standardized achievement test, the opposite was true. The immigrant students, it turned out, were far behind the national reading level.
When parents across the school district learned that their children were lagging in reading proficiency, they decided to do something. They looked to their neighbors in nearby Norwalk, where families had been participating in a literacy initiative called Springboard Collaborative since 2018. The Stamford parents had heard about the success of the program, which invites families into the classroom for workshops on how to boost their kids’ reading skills, and decided to push for it to be brought to Stamford schools, too.
Besides immigrant students, children from low-income families also suffer from a literacy gap. When school isn’t in session, these students fall behind even more. By the time they reach the end of fifth grade, this “summer slide” can put disadvantaged kids three years behind their peers in reading level. What’s more, if these students aren’t reading at the recommended level by fourth grade, they’re 13 times more likely to drop out of high school.
To help bridge that divide, Springboard Collaborative brings teachers and parents together to instill better reading habits in their children. The program, which is free for families and paid for by the school district and private donors, holds sessions both in the summer and during the school year. Through teacher-led workshops, parents are trained to be effective reading coaches for their kids, who are rewarded for their progress.
“You think the school is doing right by your kid, and you think your kid is doing fine and getting good grades. But the reality is that the grades are distributed on a bell curve,” founder and CEO Alejandro Gibes de Gac, a former first-grade teacher who himself immigrated to the United States as a student told NationSwell. [Editor’s note: Gibes de Gac is a member of the NationSwell Council.] “A kid might get an A in a low-income school, and they might be doing better than others in their classroom, but it may also be true that they’re far behind their higher-income peers.”
Since launching in 2012, Springboard, currently available in over 65 schools, has seen impressive improvements in students’ reading skills — and has the data to back it up. Instead of the usual three-month regression most kids experience during a summer break, participants in Springboard’s 2018 summer program actually gained a six-month advantage in reading skills.
That data is what pushed Stamford parent Jenny Canepa to get on board.
Last fall, Canepa and like-minded parents came together to brainstorm ways to get Springboard to come to their district. They organized assemblies to educate the community on the literacy gap, and Canepa spent weekends at grocery stores, laundromats and bus stops talking to parents. Others canvassed neighborhoods collecting signatures; in two weeks, nearly 200 people had signed a petition in favor of Springboard.
The Stamford parents, with the support of Gibes de Gac, presented the petition to the superintendent that November and, finally, to the Board of Education in May.
The board meeting dragged on for hours until members voted on the proposal. Gibes de Gac could feel the tension in the room. “We could tell from the tenor of the conversation and the nature of the debate that it was likely going to fail.” Besides, the school district had a tight budget.
At 11 p.m. on a Tuesday, the school board approved of the $150,000 contract by a narrow 5-to-4 vote.
The room erupted, Gibes de Gac said. District leaders and families cried, smiled and cheered. “It was a culmination of many years of sacrifice and of feeling overlooked,” Gibes de Gac said. “To be in a position where your advocacy moves a system that can so easily overlook low-income families, it meant a great deal to them.”
The contract will provide literacy coaching to 240 students and families across the district, where about 9% of residents live below the poverty line. Schools will select the students most in need of reading support, and any remaining spots will be offered to the families who were most active in the campaign to bring Springboard to Stamford.
The Canepas won’t be one of them, though. While Canepa has a 13-year-old son, Springboard is targeted to younger students, from pre-K to third grade. But that didn’t matter to her.
“We’re not only fighting for our kids. We’re fighting for the kids in the community,” she told NationSwell. “So the people who are going to attend this program are the people who are in most need.”
For Canepa, supporting families who may not know what resources and services are available to them is personal. In 2001, she emigrated from Ecuador with her 14-year-old daughter. She described the challenge of learning a new language and a new education system. She had her son, Maximillian, a few years later and when he was diagnosed with a speech delay, she knew she had to speak up for herself and her children. Canepa took classes in English and joined a network of immigrant families where she learned her rights as a parent. Since then, she’s been a leader in her community.
“Now I have a voice, I have a right, and I can use it,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”
Canepa isn’t the only one speaking out on behalf of Stamford’s children, regardless of whether they qualify for Springboard. One grandparent, she said, joined the effort just so his 8-month-old granddaughter would have better opportunities when she reaches elementary school.
“Growing up with little money but lots of ambition taught me that parents’ love for their children is the single greatest and most underutilized resource we have in education,” said Gibes de Gac.
Currently his nonprofit works with over 10,000 students in 13 cities. But what makes the situation in Stamford unusual is that the families pitched the school board, not Gibes de Gac. To help them prepare, he taught the parents Springboard’s sales playbook.
“It was maybe the proudest that I’ve felt in the last seven years of building Springboard,” he said. “It reminded me that the implications of our work go far beyond even just literacy outcomes.”