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Opinion

Their story is our story

Alejandro Gac-Artigas

Parents’ love for their children is the single greatest—and most underutilized—natural resource in education. I see this in my work every day, but I learned it first as a son. 

My father is a playwright. He was taken as a political prisoner in the 1970s in his native Chile. His crime? Writing and directing “Libertad! Libertad!,” a play in protest of Pinochet’s dictatorship. After years of torture, he made it out alive. He was luckier than many; even luckier, he met my mother while living in exile in Paris.  

My mother is from Puerto Rico, the youngest of 12, and the first in her family to go to college. She was in Paris on a graduate school scholarship when she met my father at a theater festival, where he pretended he had the perfect role for her, and she pretended she was an actress. The rest is history. 

Though it meant giving up their own theater dreams, my parents immigrated to the United States so that my sister and I could have better educational opportunities. It’s the kind of sacrifice only a parent would make. 

I joined Teach For America after graduating from Harvard in 2009 and moved to Philadelphia to teach first grade in Kensington, one of the city’s most impoverished barrios. My connection to the community was deeper than just our shared language and complexion. It was the timeless truth you see in the eyes of any parent: my students’ parents gazed at their children with the same unconditional love, unbridled optimism, and unwavering commitment with which my parents had gazed at me. I saw myself in my students, and in their parents, I saw my own. And yet our school system all too often approaches low-income parents as liabilities rather than assets. 

Picture a child’s time as an orange. Their classroom experience—just 25% of their waking hours—is a small wedge from which the education sector is fixated on squeezing more and more juice. I became interested in the question: how can we juice the rest of the orange? 

Building Bridges Between Teachers and Parents In Low-Income Communities 

As the CEO & Founder of Springboard Collaborative—an organization working to close the literacy gap by closing the gap between home and school—I see every day the potential for parents to dramatically improve educational outcomes. After all, there is no smaller classroom than a family’s living room, and there is no better way to personalize instruction than through a parent.  

Springboard has seen incredible results for parents, teachers, and students alike. However, for all the data we track, none convey the potential in family engagement better than the families themselves. 

I have been inspired, in particular, by a small but mighty coalition of immigrant parents in Stamford, Connecticut. They call themselves the “Power Parents,” and they will stop at nothing to give their children the gift—and the power—of reading.  

Earlier this year, a group of families in Stamford was dismayed to learn that their children were not reading on grade level and that a chasm was widening between their kids and more affluent peers. America was not fulfilling its promise of opportunity, for which the families had sacrificed so much. When a few of the parents caught wind of Springboard’s results in neighboring Norwalk, they decided to lobby their district to bring the program into Stamford Public Schools. They were especially drawn to Springboard’s family workshops, during which teachers equip and empower parents to be home literacy coaches. The Power Parents were eager to get out of the passenger’s seat and step into the driver’s seat of their children’s literacy. 

With guidance and support from Building One Community—a center for immigrant opportunity—the parents began organizing a campaign. Ten parents became 50, and 50 became 200. This video beautifully captures the experience. 

On Tuesday, May 28, the Power Parents’ months-long effort resulted in a 4-hour rollercoaster of a meeting during which the Stamford school board approved Springboard's contract 5-to-4. 

Parents, clad in orange t-shirts, gave stirring speeches during the public forum. One father explained that although his own children are too old to participate in Springboard, he was fighting for the opportunity so that other families wouldn’t endure the same hardships. When the board finally voted, family members and district leaders alike shed tears of joy and relief. 

Their Story is Our Story 

You can see some of the families below. The woman in the tan jacket on the left is my mother. My parents made the trip to show solidarity with the Power Parents, because their story is our story. It’s a story about making sacrifices that only a parent would, and facing the struggles of life as a newcomer with a steely resolve to advocate for your children. As one of the Stamford mothers told me: "I'm proud of you as if you were my son. When one of us makes it, we all make it." 

 

Though Springboard is supporting 10,000 low-income families across the country, never before have we seen a group of parents organize to bring the program to their community. I hope this story serves as a model that can be replicated and as a beacon that lights the way for families across the country. Every parent dreams of a better tomorrow for their children; collectively, these dreams can move mountains.