Meet 2021 American Express NGen Award Finalist – Alejandro Gibes de Gac

Alejandro Gibes de Gac, who was once a first-grade teacher, has a passion for education. He is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Springboard Collaborative, which coaches teachers and parents to help kids read on grade level – helping schools dramatically improve outcomes by harnessing the untapped potential in family engagement.

We asked Alejandro about his work to close the literacy gap by closing the gap between home and school.

  • It’s been a particularly challenging couple of years. What has kept you grounded and whole in this time?

The only reason the pandemic didn’t break Springboard’s model is that we broke it ourselves two years ago. We set a goal that was deliberately unachievable with our intensive, in-person program model: to help 100,000 students reach reading goals by 2023. We began aggressively innovating in order to scale Springboard’s impact exponentially, rather than fixating on incrementally growing our programmatic footprint.

Alejandro Gibes de Gac

Over the last two years, Springboard launched a franchising model as well as an app to support learning at home. Perhaps most importantly, we codified and open-sourced our recipe for impact. Family-Educator Learning Accelerators (or FELAs) are five- to 10-week cycles during which educators and families team up to help kids reach learning goals. Springboard’s long-term vision is to make FELAs standard practice in the education system. You should be able to walk into any school in America and see parents and teachers working in tandem – rather than in parallel – to support student learning.

Outside of work, I am grounded by the experience of becoming a father just three months ago! My mother and father taught me the awesome power of parents’ love for  their children. I experienced this first as a son, and I’m moved beyond words to experience it now as a father.

You’ll get to meet & Alejandro Gibes de Gac during his Upswell Summit Spotlight on Wednesday, October 20 at 1:15 – 1:30pm as part the Public Square networking session. You can also hear him on Thursday, October 21  at 1:05 pm for this ‘Unleashing Untapped Teaching Potential Within Black and Brown Families’  spark talk. Until then, you can learn a bit more about him below..

  • Who or what has been the biggest inspiration to your growth as a leader?

My parents have been my biggest source of inspiration. I’m half Chilean, half Puerto Rican. My father was taken as a political prisoner in the 70s in his native Chile. His crime? Writing and directing Libertad! Libertad!, a play in protest of Pinochet’s dictatorship (and it went over about as well as you would expect). After years of torture, my father made it out alive. He was luckier than many. Even luckier, he met my mom. My mother is from Puerto Rico, the youngest of 12, and the first in her family to go to college. Like so many immigrants, my parents came to America at great sacrifice so that their kids could have better educational opportunities.

Growing up in a home with little money, but lots of love, I learned firsthand that parents’ love for their kids is indeed the greatest – and most underutilized – natural resource in education. This was the founding insight of Springboard Collaborative, and it continues to guide our work today.

  • What attracted you to become involved in your organization’s mission?

After graduating from college, I became a first-grade teacher in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in North Philly. In my kids, I saw myself; in their parents, I saw my own. The connection was deeper than even our shared language, culture, and experience of childhood poverty. 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 gazed at me. The very same eyes with which my wife and I gaze at our daughter, Alma. My students’ parents – like my own – understood deeply the importance of their children’s educational success. In their kids, they saw an opportunity for a better life than their own. One full of choices, not struggles.

As a teacher, I soon became frustrated that our system, too, often treats Black and brown parents – like mine – as liabilities rather than as assets. My school thought of a child’s “home life” as a risk to be mitigated, not a resource to be cultivated. I knew we were missing a massive opportunity. Picture a child’s time as an orange. Students were in my classroom for just 25% of their waking hours. Try as I might to squeeze from that wedge, I knew I needed to find a way to work with families and “juice” the rest of the orange. After all, research shows that parental involvement in their children’s learning is the most powerful predictor of academic success.

I founded Springboard Collaborative almost a decade ago to close the literacy gap by harnessing the untapped teaching potential within families.

  • Upswell, a meeting ground for Independent Sector’s changemaker community, is focused on creating a healthy and racially equitable nation. How does this vision tie into your organization’s work? 

Springboard Collaborative focuses on literacy for reasons that Frederick Douglass best described: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” The first step of a FELA is to form a team between teachers and families by developing relational trust, typically through a home visit. Over the course of the cycle, family-educator teams work together, often across lines of difference, toward a common goal. The experience of achieving that goal is transformative for teachers – who begin to view Black and brown parents as assets – and for families – who feel empowered to drive educational outcomes for their children. This also shifts the power dynamic within school systems, making them every bit as accountable to Black and brown parents as they have been to white parents for decades.

Internally, Springboard partnered with the Center for Urban Equity to develop a comprehensive race equity action plan. It is currently being operationalized through 32 actively managed projects as well as a concurrent pay equity study.

  • What attributes and perspectives do today’s emerging leaders bring to accelerating the sector’s work to address our nation’s challenges? 

Proximity matters. Your solution can only be as good as your understanding of the problem, and no one understands a problem better than the people who have experienced it firsthand. The emerging leaders best positioned to solve problems with marginalized communities are those that come from marginalized communities.

  • How would you challenge today’s changemakers to become more involved in building a healthier and more racially just nation where all can thrive?

The greatest challenge for any aspiring social entrepreneur is finding your problem. Starting a venture is so challenging and volatile that any reasonable person will jump ship. You need to feel unreasonably passionate about the problem you seek to solve.

The next task is to identify the root causes. An intractable problem, in its very nature, evades solutions. The entrepreneur’s only chance at succeeding where hundreds before you have failed is to understand the problem more deeply than anyone else. And no one understands a problem better than the people who experience it firsthand. If you lack firsthand experience, this should be your first priority. In many ways, your role is to reallocate capital, power, and privilege so that communities can solve the problems they understand best.

Want to learn about our other 2021 American Express NGen Award finalists?

Learn about Richard Reyes, Kashif Shaikh, Andrew Plumley,  Nick MonziMeghan Shea, and Maria Yuan, the 2021 American Express Leadership Award recipient.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Society, Education, Equity, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Upswell
Focus Areas: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion