On a summer afternoon, Ciara Whelan, a teacher at a New York City elementary school, knocks on the apartment door of one of her students in the Bronx.
Melissa, the student's mother, welcomes her guest with a huge platter of snacks — shrimp rolls and dill dip. Melissa explains that this past school year — third grade — her daughter, Sapphira, fell behind in her reading because she got a phone and spent too much time messaging her friends on apps like TikTok. (We're not using their last names to protect the student's privacy.)
"I think it was not even about school itself — I think it was just distractions in class," Melissa says.
This home visit is the kickoff to a reading program called Springboard Collaborative.
Springboard runs after-school and summer programs with struggling readers in low-income elementary schools in 13 cities across the U.S., including Girls Prep Lower East Side Elementary School, which Sapphira attends. Once each week, a family member — mom, dad, grandma, an older sibling — attends an hourlong workshop to help learn and practice the strategies students are learning in class.
"Parent engagement is the beating heart of our programs," says founder Alejandro Gibes de Gac. "It's the spirit in the cocktail."
Here's why he believes this is so important. About 1 in 3 fourth-graders in the U.S. is reading below grade level, according to the test known as the Nation's Report Card. This figure hasn't changed for decades — not with more testing, not with the Common Core.
Gibes de Gac points out that children spend most of their waking hours outside the classroom. Like an orange, he likes to say, you can try to squeeze as much juice as you can out of that wedge that is class time, but there's a lot of untapped potential in the remaining segments. Yet most parent-engagement efforts from schools, he argues, are lightweight, marginal — a fundraiser here, a game night there. He says few programs directly share teaching strategies from the classroom for a core subject.
Sapphira's Springboard program is held in an upstairs classroom at Girls Prep Lower East Side, a charter school in Manhattan. A roomful of dads and moms are crammed into little chairs alongside their daughters. Everyone is wearing a blue T-shirt that says "SPRINGBOARD COLLABORATIVE" on the front. Jehron, Sapphira's dad, sits with his daughter, holding an index card to help mark her place in the book Sideways Stories From Wayside School.
"You're going too fast, OK?" he tells her. "Right now you need to slow down."
After a few minutes of reading together, Whelan tells parents to ask students to summarize what is happening every few pages, to check comprehension. "If they can't tell you, it doesn't always mean the book is too hard," she explains.
In the past seven years, Springboard has collected what Gibes de Gac calls, tongue-in-cheek, a "nauseating" amount of data to prove its effectiveness. For example: In just five weeks, on average, 3 out of 4 students get to the next reading level or even further. One district, Oakland Unified School District, had an independent evaluation that found that Springboard was one of its most effective literacy investments.
The program also gives books to each child. Backpacks full of school supplies and tablets are offered as incentives for completing the whole program. The idea, Gibes de Gac explains, is for families to practice setting goals and forming new positive habits. When the program follows up six months later, the evaluations show that families are still reading together more than before.
Gibes de Gac started this program when he was only 22, and his personal experiences played a big role in its development. His father is a Chilean playwright who was imprisoned by Augusto Pinochet's regime for a political play titled Libertad! Libertad!. His mother, a teacher, was born in Puerto Rico, and his parents met in Paris and subsequently toured with their own theater company.
When Gibes de Gac was in kindergarten, his parents came to the United States in search of better schools. It wasn't always a friendly place to be. As an eighth-grader, he published a memoir of his experiences being bullied as an immigrant student. "I became passionate about the right of other people to a great education."
He made it to Harvard University. Then Teach for America in Philadelphia. "I was teaching in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. I saw myself in my students. I saw my parents in their parents.
"It was more than just our shared language and complexion," he explains. "It was the look! My students' parents looked at their children with all the love, commitment and potential that any parent sees in their child. And yet my school and our system approached low-income parents as liabilities rather than assets."
He said that the school system often treated his parents as "pushy immigrants with bad English." Instead, he says, parents are "the single greatest underutilized resource to helping children who are struggling."
This is true, he maintains, even if parents aren't educated or fluent in English. About a third of Springboard parents don't speak English as a first language, and many, like Sapphira's parents, are immigrants.
To prove that families like his own could be powerful partners in learning, he held his first Springboard workshop eight years ago at the school where he taught in Philadelphia.
At the first home visit, teachers ask for parents' help. "The parent promises the child, 'Here's how much and how often I'm going to read with you together.' " And the child, in turn, promises to read on his or her own. That promise is powerful: On average, Gibes de Gac says, 91% of the families come to every single workshop.
That has been true for Jehron, who works as a private driver. Melissa, Sapphira's mom, has been busy at her job as a nanny. The family commutes an hour and a half each way to Girls Prep.
"So far so good," says Jehron. "She's doing really well. I think she went up half a level."
Sapphira is not so enthusiastic about spending her summer mornings inside. "It's ... OK."
But, she admits, she can see the improvement too.
"When I'm reading, [it] sounds more better, every time ... because I know most of the words."
Springboard plans to scale up by franchising its model, with a goal of reaching 100,000 children in the next four years. It is also creating an app. Currently it's running tests in different cities to see which parts of the program are essential and which could be cut if a particular school lacks the budget for them. For example, the free tablet and backpack, it has found, don't seem to make much difference in the program's success.
The key instead is the promise that parents make to their children.