These Parents Fought for a Better Education for Their Kids — and Won

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.”

Stamford families celebrate after the school board passed Springboard Collaborative’s proposal.

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.  
The group of immigrant families spent months lobbying for the district to bring Springboard Collaborative to their schools.

“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.”
More:  Kids Are Learning to Read In a Place You’d Never Expect: The Laundromat

A Local Hero Found a Unique Way to Fight Adult Illiteracy: Comic Books

Four Color Fantasies assistant manager Erik Jones isn’t a superhero. But to the 12 percent of Virginians who lack basic literacy skills, he had an idea heroic enough to make him seem like one.
After giving comics to his niece and nephew when they were kids to try to get them to enjoy reading, Jones went to a comic book convention, sketchbook in hand. He asked his favorite artists to draw sketches for a local charity, Literacy Volunteers Winchester Area. All of them agreed to contribute to the project.
Jones and Literacy Volunteers hope the comics they create might introduce adult readers to literature through image-based storytelling. For them and for other proponents, comics are the perfect medium for non-readers. Many are image heavy and light on text, so visuals might help provide context for what the words are saying.   
The shop is auctioning off the comics at an auction, with the winners to be announced on Comic Book Day (Saturday, May 4).

Watch the video above to learn more about LVWA and Four Color Fantasies. To enter the auction, click here.
MORE: They’re Finding Hope for Their Future in Comic Books and Journal Entries

When the American Dream Becomes Human Rights Abuse

Christina Fialho was in law school with hopes of becoming an immigration attorney, when a friend’s father disappeared into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) system. Later, they found out he’d been deported to Mexico. “To this day, she and her father are separated,” Fialho says.
After the incident, Fialho, whose great-grandfather, grandparents and dad all emigrated from the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, made it her mission to learn more about what’s often an opaque and isolating process for undocumented immigrants and their loved ones. Once detained, “They can hire pro bono attorneys or pay for a private attorney, but 84 percent of people in immigration detention are not represented, because there is no right to a court-appointed attorney,” she says. Many can’t even afford to place costly calls to family members on the outside.
So Fialho, along with social justice advocate Christina Mansfield, cofounded Detention Dialogues in 2010, the first visitation program for immigrant detainees in California.
Bolstered by success of their joint effort, the two Christinas expanded their reach by building and coordinating a national network of visitation programs. In 2012, they launched Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement — or CIVIC for short — a national nonprofit that works to abolish detention centers by monitoring human rights abuses and offering alternates to the current system. The watchdog organization also advocates for legislative changes, such as limiting ICE’s expansion of detention centers, and it operates a free, confidential hotline for detainees to connect with family and to report any abuses. On average, CIVIC volunteers process around 14,000 calls a month from all 210 of the country’s immigration detention centers.
“The mere act of a visitation is great, but turning that into a tool for advocacy was really where we saw the potential for systemic change,” says Erica Lock, director of fellowship programs at Echoing Green, a nonprofit that helped Fialho and Mansfield launch CIVIC.

CIVIC co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act, which helps fight the growth of for-profit immigrant detention centers.


The myriad issues facing immigrants in detention — including substandard medical care, prolonged imprisonment and poor nutrition — are stark, and they’re only getting worse. Since ICE was created in 2003, there have been more than 175 confirmed deaths in detention centers nationwide. Since October 2016, 11 immigrants have died while in custody, the highest number since 2011.
Between January 2010 and July 2016, there were 33,126 complaints of sexual or physical abuse in immigration detention facilities, with just 1.7 percent of those complaints leading to an investigation by the federal government. “If we can educate the public and our legislators about how our tax dollars go to perpetrating human and civil rights abuses, that’s one step toward change,” Fialho says. “The second is providing alternatives to [detention centers].”
The alternatives championed by CIVIC work similarly to refugee resettlement programs, says Fialho, in which a nonprofit typically steps in to help immigrants obtain housing, a social security card and, if necessary, legal support. “Individuals may spend weeks, months or even years in detention centers,” says Fialho. “We’ve been working to get those people released and provide them with support.”
CIVIC’s efforts have been “critically important” in helping detainees feel less isolated, supporting their legal cases and advocating on their behalf, says Victoria Lopez, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She also sees potential for change through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a bipartisan law passed in 2003 and standardized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2014 to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse and assault at its detention centers.
The hope, says Lopez, is that CIVIC’s “recent efforts in telling the stories and collecting information about sexual assaults will have an impact on how the implementation of PREA moves forward.”


This past summer CIVIC, along with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, successfully advocated for the inclusion of a provision in a California budget bill that limits ICE’s expansion of detention centers in the state. It’s the first law of its kind in the country, and it bars all new contracts between local municipalities and ICE for the next 10 years. CIVIC also co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act, recently signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown, that freezes the growth of for-profit immigrant detention centers — another first in the U.S.
“Our budget bill stopped the spread of immigration detention facilities run by county jails in California,” Fialho says, noting that 70 percent of people detained in the state and nationwide are held in for-profit facilities.
Increasingly, Fialho has her sights on shaping policy at the national level. Her team has already began filing federal civil rights complaints, including one that alleges rising sexual abuse inside the centers and another that claims detainees at one California facility are frequently denied visits from attorneys and family members.
Fialho and CIVIC have also consulted on a federal budget amendment to stop immigrant detention expansion nationwide and are co-sponsors of a new bill introduced in October called the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, which builds upon the organization’s achievements in California. “We’ve been able to push for policy change,” says Fialho. “That’s been really powerful.”

Here Are Your 2016 Inherent Prize Finalists

One of these movers and shakers will be awarded with the Inherent Prize in recognition of their social entrepreneurship. The grand-prize winner receives $50,000, with the runner-up nabbing $25,000. Get to know more about each below, and check back after November 15th to read about the winner.

The Good News for Immigrants Looking to Become the Country’s Future Leaders

Most immigrants only know what it’s like to be a newcomer to a country once. But for Sayu Bhojwani has done it twice.
Immigrant leadership advocate Bhojwani was born in India in 1967, then moved to Belize with her parents when she was four-years-old. She spent the remainder of her childhood in the Central American country, learning the Catholic traditions and the Spanish language, which most of the population speaks despite English being the official language of the country, along with her own family’s heritage.
Then in 1984, she went to college at the University of Miami and moved to New York City after she graduated where she was struck by the vibrant mix of different ethnicities living side-by-side.
Working with Asian immigrants and Asian-American communities through the Asia Society, she soon noticed that there were few elected representatives of this community. So in 1996, she created the nonprofit South Asian Youth Action! (SAYA!), which helps young Asian-Americans feel more at home in their country — connecting kids from immigrant families to tutoring, mentoring, internships and jobs. In other words, the sorts of opportunities American kids from non-immigrant families can take for granted.
“I’m restless,” Bhojwani tells NBC News. “For better or worse I get bored with what I’m doing and I start thinking about what problem I can solve.”
Bhojwani went on to tackle many other problems. In the wake of the September 11 attacks and the persecution many immigrants experienced as a result, Bhojwani was named the first New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs. In that role, she pressed for policy changes, such as ensuring that immigrants could maintain their confidentiality when reporting crimes or receiving healthcare. “Really what we did,” she says, “was serve as a pain in the ass, to getting these things through city bureaucracy.”
Then Bhojwani decided she wanted to look beyond New York City and get Americans all over the country to view immigrants in a more positive light and treat them with respect. To do this, she founded the New American Leaders Project (NALP) in 2010, through which she works to foster leaders in immigrant communities and supports representatives of these communities running for public office.
Bhojwani is an inveterate helper and problem solver. “I feel like if I see something, I have to do something about it,” she tells NBC. “As I get older, I am working on this — if I see something, I should point it out to someone else.”
Still, it’s clear the 47-year-old Bhojwani plans to keep solving problems for immigrants for years to come.
MORE: This Immigrant Turned Fast-Food Franchise Owner Has Been Serving Free Thanksgiving Dinner for 23 Years

Why Immigrants Are Necessary in Order for the American Dream to Exist

Like many other veterans, Minnesota’s Mike Dukart credits his time in the military with giving him the ability to persevere as a businessman.
Dukart is a Marine Corps veteran who became an entrepreneur, founding Illusion Systems, a company that sells hunting call devices, including the “Extinguisher Deer Call” and the “Goose Flute Calling System,” racking up millions of dollars in sales each year.
“If it wasn’t for the training I received in the Marine Corps I wouldn’t have made it through the difficult times,” Dukart tells Daddyhood.Net. “When it comes to tough situations, the word ‘can’t’ isn’t in a Marine’s vocabulary.”
Many members of Dukart’s family have served in the Armed Forces, developing that toughness he credits with his success, and he’s especially thankful his relatives that emigrated from Germany to North Dakota in the early 1900s. “It was really amazing to listen to how they would flip the wagons over [to] survive the winter. If you think about what they endured. It’s pretty amazing, the culture they created and what’s been achieved in west and southwest North Dakota today.”
Dukart believes that new immigrants — regardless of where they come from — can make a similar contribution to America through their hard work and service, which is why he made the film “Serving America: Putting the American Dream to Work.”
“So many people forget that they too are products of immigrants,” Dukart says. “I hope this film awakens Americans to reconnect and understand what immigrants bring to the table and their contributions.”
In the film Dukart explores how immigration previously benefitted America. “It’ll touch on our military — how we as patriots have stood up to protect this country,” he says. “These hot button issues aren’t leading to the left or to the right. It’s about dealing with issues and problem solving.”
MORE: Many Politicians are Dragging Their Feet on Immigration Reform. But This CEO Says The Time for Reform is Now

For New Americans Struggling with Paperwork, These College Students Are Helping Tackle It

Melanie Domenech Rodríguez, a multi-cultural psychology teacher at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, came up with an innovative way for her students to gain some hands-on experience with the topics they discussed in class: Every Tuesday night, students volunteer to help local refugees and immigrants at an employment and citizenship clinic they created.
Rodríguez and others initially trained the students, but now they run the clinic themselves.
Antonia Keller, a student coordinator, tells Lis Stewart of HJNews, “It’s been really exciting for me and really rewarding to meet all the people that move to Cache Valley. I think it really enriches the valley and makes it a better place to have people from all different backgrounds and experiences here.”
Keller and the other students help immigrants craft resumes, fill out job applications and complete the paperwork required for the naturalization test. While there are other organizations in the community that help immigrants study for the test, no one else was helping them handle the paperwork. “It’s really intensive,” Keller says, “and really a kind of big bureaucratic thing to tackle on your own.”
The clinic has been successful enough that Utah State students will continue to run it in the spring, surely resulting in more insights like the one college student Alecc Quezada had about how privileged he is to have grown up in the United States. “I knew that to become a citizen you had to take a test, and I knew what resumes and what jobs required, but it’s so much easier knowing the language especially and having that cultural background,” he says.
MORE: For More Than 100 Years, This House Has Been Welcoming New Americans

Where Mentoring, Not Donations, Makes a Difference for Immigrant Families

In diverse Stamford, Conn., 40 percent of the residents were born in another country — and as is typical of first-generation immigrants, many work in the service industry or manual labor jobs. But in this area with a very high cost-of-living index — 141.3 compared to the U.S. average of 100, according to — money earned from a low-paying job doesn’t go very far.
But several Latino families that have managed to climb to the top are helping out newcomers any way they can.
Maria Isabel and Oscar Sandoval moved to Stamford 20 years ago and started a restaurant and a landscaping business. After years of hard work, they now employ 60 people. More importantly, they mentor immigrants seeking to start their own businesses. “It wasn’t easy,” Sandoval tells Alexandra Campbell Howe of NBC News. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up. I mentor others who are starting out, and let them know about my experience and help as many people as I can.”
Oscar Sandoval advised Ecuadorian immigrant Alex Pipantasi when he was starting his automotive repair shop. “He gave me valuable advice on how to treat clients and employees,” Pipantasi says.
The Sandovals also donate money to Neighbors Link, a center that helps immigrants adjust to life in America, learn English, educate their children and themselves, find jobs and connect to others.
Catalina Semper Horak, a Colombian immigrant who co-founded the center and serves as its executive director, says that the stark income differences visible in Stamford inspired the organization’s creation. “It’s an issue where there is a very direct connection between the haves and the have nots,” she says. “So supporting this segment of the population, making sure they have a place where they feel comfortable….was an idea that resonated with a lot of people.”
Sarita Hanley, a co-founder of Neighbors Link, emphasizes that while donations help immigrants settle in, the kind of mentoring that the Sandovals provide is invaluable. “Money is always necessary, but rolling up your sleeves is as important, sometimes even more.”
MORE: Neighborhood Centers Provide Immigrants an Instant Community

For New Americans, These Programs Help Them Live Off the Land

The classic image of the American immigrant involves a family arriving in a big city like New York or San Francisco and working to make their way in that urban environment. But statistics show that more immigrants to the U.S. head to the Midwest where they take jobs in agriculture.
In fact, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 2007 and 2011, 2.1 million foreign-born people lived in rural areas. Since 1990, the Midwest and South’s Latino population has grown significantly — particularly in towns with meat packing plants. Now, more children of immigrants are seeing farming as an attractive career path.
In a two-part series for Iowa Public Radio, Amy Mayer explored this shift. Five years ago, the Boelens sold their farm in the Netherlands because they weren’t able to expand it enough to sustain it and moved to Iowa. The family of seven came to America through a program called the Startup Visa for foreign entrepreneurs who plan to invest $100,000 or more in a U.S. business. Through it, five American jobs must be created in order for the visa to be renewed. Two of the Boelen’s five children tell Mayer that one day they plan to farm the family’s land.
A more typical immigrant farmer story is that of Pacifique Simon, who was born in Congo to Burundian parents in refugee camps. The Simons received asylum in the U.S. and came to Des Moines. They didn’t have enough money to buy a farm and make use of their agricultural experience, but a program sponsored by some Iowa churches has provided them with land to work.
Simon is majoring in agricultural systems technology at Iowa State University in the hopes of making farming his life. “I want to learn some skills here and then go teach people back there so they can produce enough food to feed their own family,” Simon tells Mayer.
The largest immigrant group in the Midwest, however, are Latinos, especially Mexican-Americans. Mayer found that some of the children of Mexican immigrants are turned off by the prospect of a career in agriculture since they’ve seen their parents worn down by backbreaking labor in meatpacking plants in exchange for low wages.
Still, with so many second-generation Latinos in the Midwest, some of them are turning to farming for a career. Mayer spoke to Brian Castro, who graduated from Iowa State this year. His parents are immigrants from Mexico, and he plans to make a career out of providing better agricultural jobs for Latinos.
“There’s a huge misrepresentation of the Latino population,” Castro says, “of Latino workers in the decision-making area for agriculture, even though they are the number one, the main population of the workers.”
Melissa Garcia, whose parents also immigrated from Mexico, earned a full-ride to Iowa State and plans to study to be a large animal veterinarian. “There’s a career and a job out there waiting for me,” she tells Mayer. “And then hopefully one day I’ll reach my goal of having my own farm.”
MORE: From Field Hands to Farmers: This Program Helps Latino Immigrants Become Land Owners
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post referred to Iowa State University by its old name, Iowa State College of Agriculture, and stated that Brian Castro and Melissa Garcia are cousins–they are not.

For Immigrants Waiting on Paper Bureaucracy, This Online System Could Be the Answer

One of the problems stemming from the recent surge of child refugees into the U.S. from Central America? Each applicant could wait years before their immigration cases are processed, thanks to our backlogged system (the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, or USCIS, receives millions of paper applications each year).
The people behind a San Francisco-based company, FileRight, think they have the solution: an online system for filing immigrant claims, which will allow individuals to fill out their own forms without hiring expensive lawyers — similar to the way that the software TurboTax enables citizens to complete their own taxes online. These forms can then be digitally processed, potentially speeding up the process.
Now, FileRight just has to convince the government to allow online applications.
According to Megan R. Wilson of The Hill, FileRight hired lobbyists in January and has been meeting with Obama administration officials.
Cesare Alessandrini, founder and chief executive of FileRight, is the son of Italian immigrants who got the idea for the program when he was trying to help his soon-to-be Argentinian wife apply for citizenship. “I had two options: I could have hired a lawyer for $5,000 — which I didn’t have — or I could do it myself,” he tells Wilson. “How hard could it be?”
Alessandrini found the application process confusing and complicated — even for a native English speaker. So he began designing FileRight, a system that could help some applicants avoid denials for small errors such as spelling mistakes or writing on the wrong line, which are routine with the current, paper-based system.
FileRight isn’t the first company to attempt to digitize the immigration process. As we reported in February, Clearpath Inc. is also developing software to streamline the visa application process.
Regardless of which company’s software proves the most effective, it seems likely that digitizing the process will certainly help relieve some of the immigration backlog.
MORE: Meet the Entrepreneur Creating a ‘TurboTax for Immigration’