Springboard Collaborative: An Innovative Solution to Low-Income Literacy Challenges


Low-income communities across the country suffer from education inequities that compound over a child’s lifetime, ultimately resulting in a higher chance of dropping out of high school, engaging in criminal activity and sustaining heavy economic losses. Literacy lag is especially detrimental because reading is the medium by which all other learning occurs. If a child is not a proficient reader by fourth grade, her future is in jeopardy.

Philadelphia-based Springboard Collaborative is a disruptive innovation in that it transforms an expensive and complicated concept (closing the literacy gap) into a simple, relatively low-cost solution that is accessible to more people. Its core competency is family involvement as opposed to teacher engagement or recruitment, which is the focus of many organizations with similar missions. By combining targeted teacher instruction with parental engagement to combat the reading losses low-income children sustain when they’re out of school, Springboard Collaborative’s model is not only closing the literacy gap and making substantial reading gains, it is the system by which schools transform themselves from within.

Springboard’s three-pronged approach involves:

  • Coaching teachers in data-driven instruction to encourage pre-K through third-graders to reach their reading goals
  • Providing parents with effective strategies to teach reading at home
  • Awarding educational incentives when students meet goals and make progress

Using existing structures and resources, Springboard’s summer program turns a three-month reading loss into a 3.3-month reading gain, increasing literary trajectories by 6.3 months. Since its inception in 2011, Springboard has grown from working with 42 students to 1,600, and now spans 20 schools. In 2013, Springboard became the only district-funded summer learning provider in the city after reaching a historical agreement with School District of Philadelphia (SDP). In 2014, the organization became the only K–3 summer learning provider for the Camden City School District, beating out established providers.

Springboard envisions growing to 4,000 children by next year; expanding to at least four cities; having multiple programmatic offerings (summer and school year); and reaching 80% (self-funded) financial sustainability by 2018.


They say it takes a village to raise a child. Teachers, parents, grandparents and fellow students all play a unique role in a child’s education. However, in the current U.S. education system, there are glaring disparities between income groups and how their children are educated. In high-income neighborhoods, schools typically encourage a strong relationship between teachers, students and their parents. This multi-pronged approach provides several avenues for academic success and support. However, in low-income communities, that structure is broken;  parents aren’t involved in their children’s education to the extent that higher earners are. When poor students go home for the summer, they suffer a significant achievement gap compared with their higher-income peers.

Third grade is when students make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Prior to third grade, children look at letters and make words; after third grade, reading is the medium they use for all other learning. Literacy is a foundational skill, one that’s necessary to master in order to comprehend all other subjects. By the time they reach fourth grade, students who can’t read are four times more likely to drop out of high school than are their more proficient peers. If the students are also from low-income households, they become 13 times more likely to drop out.  In Philadelphia, only 13% of fourth graders are reading at a proficient level (Springboard Collaborative, p. 1).  This compounds throughout a child’s life, so that the high school dropout rate in the city is between 40% and 50% (Johnson, 2011), with only 10% of Philadelphians earning a college degree (Springboard Collaborative, xxxx, p. 1).  These statistics translate into legitimate economic problems: Philadelphia’s adult literacy rate of 22% hovers close to its poverty rate of 28% (Westervelt, 2013). Alejandro Gac-Artigas, the son of a Chilean playwright and a first-generation college student, was taught at an early age that “Education was the only way to define your own dreams. If you don’t define your own dreams, people are going to set expectations for you because of the way you look and the language you speak” (Shelly, 2014). He went on to publish a book in the eighth grade and to graduate from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, and he is now running Springboard Collaborative.

After participating in Teach for America and becoming a first-grade teacher at the Pan American Academy Charter School in Kensington, Gac-Artigas became acutely aware of how much his students’ reading levels regressed over the summer. Other teachers chalked it up to “summer slide”—the inevitable reading loss low-income students experience when school is out. Gac-Artigas soon realized that the problem was the lack of continuous access to learning at home; parents weren’t encouraged to become involved in their children’s education and therefore weren’t promoting reading at home. “We’ve put all our eggs in one basket; we expect our kids to make all their literacy progress in the classroom,” says Gac-Artigas. To him, the solution was not simply extending the school year, which is expensive and often intended to supplant the parent, and perhaps even replace the role of the family in order to keep kids away from a toxic environment. But parents are willing and able to teach their children for free. Springboard Collaborative was born out of the recognition that schools were not utilizing existing assets, teachers, to their full potential, while low-income families were not utilizing their most valuable teaching resource: parents. As Gac-Artigas articulates, “The love a parent has for their child is innate and bottomless.  It’s the only natural resource that exists in the education of a child.”  Teachers are experts in instruction, while parents are experts in their children: Why not coach and train these two groups to work together in providing children with the coaching they need to close the literacy gap?  Springboard’s theory of change is that if you redefine parent-teacher collaboration by teaching both groups how to effectively engage children in reading, not only will the literacy gap close and gains occur, you will ignite the engine for total school transformationBy using existing structures and resources, Springboard Summer turns a three-month reading loss into a 3.3-month reading gain, increasing literary trajectories by 6.3 months.


Springboard’s three-pronged approach involves:

  • Coaching teachers in data-driven instruction to encourage pre-K third-grade students to achieve their reading goals
  • Providing parents with effective strategies to teach reading at home
  • Awarding educational incentives when students meet goals and make progress.

Springboard Summer: The organization’s primary offering is an intensive, five-week summer literacy program for pre-K through third-grade students and their families.

  • Home Visits. Prior to programming, teachers visit their 15 selected students’ homes to establish a relationship with the parents and lay the foundation for a strong partnership. According to Gac-Artigas, this is the program’s sweet spot—visiting parents in their homes to help them perceive value in the program is what makes or breaks their children’s progress. If parents don’t receive a home visit, they don’t show up for the first workshop or any thereafter; once they attend one workshop, the value becomes obvious right away.
  • Instruction. Teachers conduct daily, half-day literacy instruction with their students (grouped by reading vs. grade level).
  • Family Workshops. Teachers lead weekly workshops to train parents on how to effectively read to their children.
  • Coaching. A site manager at every school, hired by Springboard, leads different teacher groups through a five-week coaching cycle to ensure that each classroom reaches certain targets.
  • Learning Bonuses. Springboard distributes educational incentives (books and tablets), depending on parents’ attendance and students’ reading achievements, at a capstone celebration.

Springboard School Year: This pilot program will be rolled out this coming academic year, and will train teachers to engage the families of struggling readers in order to accelerate progress throughout the school year.

  • Enrollment. Teachers select their five lowest-performing readers and use report card conferences to engage families in programming.
  • Planning. Teachers complete a detailed student action plan for each student that identifies barriers to progress and designs possible interventions for the home and the classroom.
  • Family Outreach. At an initial consultation with each family, teachers review the student action plan and the child’s reading goals.
  • Family Workshops. Over the course of the 10-week grading period, teachers lead hour-long workshops with parents every other week to equip them with the tools to drive reading progress at home.
  • Professional Development. Site managers lead biweekly training sessions to instruct teachers on effective family communication and coaching.
  • Learning Bonuses. As in the summer program, education incentives are distributed to parents and students who have made the most progress.

There are typically eight teachers per school, with 15 students per teacher. A site manager, also selected from within the school, is the point person in the building and the instructional coach for the teachers. For every school that enrolls 105 students, Springboard hires an operations lead so that site managers can focus on coaching and instruction. Site managers lead teachers through a five-week coaching cycle, during which they set performance improvement goals and maintain weekly meetings to ensure that goals are met. A cluster manager oversees four schools to ensure that performance targets are being met; they also guide their site managers through a leadership development program to hone their managerial skill set.

Springboard’s Chief Programming Officer, Aubrey White, oversees seven hours of teacher training and professional development prior to summer programming. Four of the seven hours are managed centrally, with four different workshops (there are 101 advanced versions of each workshop), and the remaining three hours are led by site managers at the schools. After the seven hours are completed, teachers are ready to implement programming.

The model scales up proportionally as Springboard grows. Compared with other summer learning programs that focus heavily on HR and recruiting, because of their in-sourced model, Springboard doesn’t need to recruit, keeping the human capital investment to a minimum. Schools select the teachers who would most benefit from coaching and the students who most need the help. Ambitious teachers and administrators jump on the opportunity to hone their skills, advance in the ranks and take advantage of leadership positions. Cluster managers are often pulled from Philadelphia’s Children’s Literacy Initiative, whose nine-month coaches align well with Springboard’s needs.

By effectively utilizing existing resources, Springboard transforms schools from within and helps to build lasting capacity by developing teachers to be better instructors, parents to be better collaborators, and site managers to be school leaders.

Social Impact

Underdeveloped literacy skills are a key reason many students drop out of high school, often turning to negative social patterns that stem from the lack of a high school education (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014).  Fourth-grade reading proficiency is one of the strongest predictors of high school graduation, college attendance and earning potential. Because of their severe reading deficiencies, each year in the U.S., 700,000 students drop out of high school. America ranks 17th among developed nations in reading, falling behind countries such as Estonia, Poland, and Liechtenstein (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014).

The social and economic consequences of these statistics are staggering: the lost wages and earnings are estimated at $335 billion every year (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2014).  In an increasingly global economy, two-thirds of which is driven by consumer spending, it is only by increasing the financial resources of large populations of the country that the U.S. will remain an economic superpower. Not only would eliminating education gaps for students from underserved and underrepresented populations have a major positive impact on the economy, the cycle of poverty, disenfranchisement and crime would also be slowed (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2012, p. 4).  The 2010–2011 National Assessment of Education Progress Reading Scores for Pennsylvania eighth graders found that only 34% were proficient (at grade level) in reading, with 39% at a basic level and 23% below basic. Only 4% were at an advanced level (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2012, p. 4).  Springboard Collaborative is making strides to combat these dismal numbers, and the work of its programming has led to impressive outcomes.

Educational Outcomes

At the outset of the piloted pre-K program, only 13% of children were scoring at or above the kindergarten-ready threshold on baseline assessments. One month later, 63% had achieved kindergarten readiness.

  • Re-enrolling students tripled their annual reading progress with a single Springboard Summer session, averaging a four-month reading gain over the 10-week grading period.
  • Springboard puts children on the trajectory to close the achievement gap by fourth grade.

Student reading improvement is the primary metric with which Springboard measures success. For K–3 students, the Developmental Reading Assessment is used to quantify reading improvement as months of academic progress. Pre-K students’ performance is rated using a reading-readiness assessment. Throughout programming, Springboard tracks weekly reading progress, student attendance, parent attendance, daily parent-teacher communication, minutes of reading nightly, teacher proficiency and total reading growth.

Parental Involvement 

  • Weekly training workshops for families averaged 93% attendance, surpassing expectations and breaking records
  • Parents who lack literacy skills of their own are learning alongside their children.
  • Overall, parent workshop attendance averaged 84% without incentives, demonstrating that parents are more motivated by the rewarding experience than by the inducements.

Gac-Artigas estimates that roughly one-third of Springboard parents are illiterate themselves. These parents know poignantly well just how important a good education is for their children. That said, he claims that the education gaps pose no problem in terms of parents’ ability to coach their kids. He believes that a good teacher helps a child ask questions before, during and after reading, and Springboard parents are given the necessary tools to help their children do so. Even if they can’t answer the questions themselves, parents are helping their children work through challenges and ask the right questions, and many of them are making literacy gains of their own.

Teacher Development

Ninety percent of K–3 teachers who were approached signed on to participate, including those in a union who would typically resist taking on parent engagement as a new responsibility.

Workshops were restructured to play to teachers’ strengths by reducing time spent presenting content and focusing time on coaching families, while also providing ample amounts of professional development and practice engaging families, significantly expediting the learning curve.

Parents and teachers work so well together because they provide complementary skill sets in order to reach a shared goal. As Gac-Artigas notes, “Think of it as a cocktail: parental engagement is the spirit—the other ingredients make it a great drink.” Teacher professional growth is measured using parent surveys and teacher assessments and observations. For teachers, Springboard measures changes in classroom outcomes over multiple years of programming. They assess teachers’ ability to track student reading progress by comparing their weekly reports with students’ end-of-program outcomes. A teacher’s ability to engage families is assessed through workshop observations, family attendance, parent feedback and a parent-teacher communication tool.

Since its inception in 2011, Springboard Collaborative has grown from working with 42 students to 1,600, and it now spans 20 schools. In 2013, even as competitors were actively avoiding the City of Philadelphia, Springboard became the only district-funded summer learning provider in the city after reaching a historic agreement with SDP, even as the district faced a $300 million budget deficit. This year, the organization became the only K–3 summer learning provider for the Camden City School District, beating out established providers such as Pearson.

Social Return on Investment (SROI)

It is hard to quantify the positive effect that engaging parents in increasing their children’s literacy can have on the greater good. Literacy leads to education, which leads to employment, which ultimately leads to stabilizing families and creating wealth in communities.

In Philadelphia, an estimated 16,400 students dropped out of high school in 2008 (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010, p. 35). If only 1,000 of those students had graduated, the City of Philadelphia would have seen the following returns in economic benefits:

  • $15 million in additional earnings each year
  • $1.2 million in increased auto sales
  • $36 million in increased home sales
  • $19 million increase in the gross regional product as a result of 110 new jobs (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010, p. 35).

In Pennsylvania, a high school graduate earns, on average, $7,680 more every year than does a student who doesn’t graduate. Approximately 33,400 students in the Commonwealth didn’t graduate from high school in 2011, equating to lost lifetime earnings for that class of dropouts of

  • $4.1 billion (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2013).

If just half of Pennsylvania’s dropouts had graduated, they would have likely provided the following economic benefits per year to the state:

  • $383 million in increased home sales and $19 million in annual auto sales
  • 1,400 new jobs and $217 million added to the gross state product
  • $18 million in increased annual state tax revenue (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2013)

Springboard has now reached well over 1,000 students and is growing substantially each year. But the organization’s influence doesn’t end there. Lack of literacy has other negative social consequences including a direct correlation with increased criminal activity.

The Department of Justice states that “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Eighty-five percent of juveniles who have contact with the court system are functionally illiterate, and penal institution records show that inmates have a 16% chance of recidivism if they receive reading help compared with a 70% chance for those who do not (Begin to Read, n.d.).

A study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that for the year ending June 30, 2010, Philadelphia had the fifth-highest rate of incarceration among the 50 jurisdictions in the country with the largest jail populations (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011).  In 2008, taxpayers spent $500 million on prisoners, $290 million of which was from just 11 of the city’s neighborhoods, home to just over one-quarter of the city’s entire population. Of the city's 35 lower-performing schools, 23 (66%) are clustered in or very near neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration—where the biggest taxpayer investment is in jails/prisons. Not coincidentally, the majority of Springboard’s school partners are in the districts with the highest incarceration rates. In contrast, of Philadelphia's 28 highest-performing schools, 21 (75%) are in neighborhoods with the lowest rates of incarceration (NAACP, n.d.).

An SROI assessment conducted in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal found that there were 246 murders in Philadelphia in 2013. Assuming that 25% of those murders remained unsolved and un-sentenced, that still results in 184 new inmates, each costing $32,059/year for an average of 10 years, for a total cost of $59 million. Now add in the additional costs of police time spent on solving the 246 murder cases (246 × $10,000) and 7,177 assaults (7,177 × $1,500), and you’re looking at a total cost to the city of $72 million (Edwards, 2014). When these numbers are extrapolated further to encompass the number of kids helped by Springboard, the financial benefits are staggering.

Financial Business Model

Springboard began with $5,000 in seed funding, which has grown to a $1.7 million budget in three years. Six months after its funding campaign was launched, investors and foundations had already contributed $1.4 million toward the $2 million goal. One anonymous donor committed $630,000, and others, including the M. Night Shyamalan and Claneil Foundations, gave $100,000–$200,000.

In 2013, Springboard introduced a fee-for-service model to start itself on the path to financial stability. The classic nonprofit focus on cost sharing was shifted to a value-based focus. Schools are charged a per student partnership fee of $550, and parents are subsequently provided Springboard’s products and services for free. For the summer offerings, the following analyses were conducted:

  • Cost-Based Analysis: to determine how much incremental revenue per student was needed for the program to be financially sustainable by 2018; the result was at least 80% earned income
  • Value-Based Analysis: to quantify the program’s worth to school partners
  • Market Analysis: to determine what price the market would bear

Cost-Based Analysis: Schools take on the internal labor cost of paying their teachers directly for any Springboard-related time, roughly $326/student of the total cost to implement Springboard’s summer program. In addition, schools pay Springboard a per-student partnership fee. In order to be at least 80% self-funded by 2018, Springboard must charge schools at least $270/student at their projected scale of 21,500 students.

Value-Based Analysis: A typical nonprofit doesn’t encourage earned income as a way to sustain itself. Those that do generate revenue see it as a cost-sharing partnership. These parents can’t shoulder a 50% cost-sharing commitment, so Springboard contracted with Bain & Company to conduct a value-based analysis to find substitutes for each of Springboard’s services and products and quantify their value to school partners. Bain concluded that if schools were to replicate Springboard’s products and services, it would cost them an extra $850. Springboard is essentially saving schools $300 by only charging $550.

Source: Springboard Collaborative Business Plan.

The value equation breaks down to: Benefits + Savings – Costs = Value to Schools. Benefits include reading gains and avoiding losses; parents becoming teachers; school capacity building: teachers becoming better teachers, site managers becoming stronger leaders; and communications tools—Springboard assembles a fundraising kit for each school with stock grant proposal language to help schools build their brand and fundraise. Savings come from eliminating the waste from summer slide and preventing remediation in later grades.

Market Analysis: The final analysis was challenging because Springboard is the only district-funded summer learning provider in the city. National competitors have actively avoided Philadelphia for financial and political reasons, making it an underdeveloped market with no market rate for summer learning. Springboard had to build demand by convincing principals that they had a problem, and then meet that demand by selling Springboard’s solution. Schools are held accountable for their students’ learning, especially for K–3. Springboard had to prioritize its services so that schools could see the true value: What gains are expected of schools and principals, and what products and services would solve their problems?

In FY13, Springboard tested the market by introducing a partnership fee of $235 per student (not including the teacher labor costs). Despite the new fee, all of Springboard’s 2012 school partners renewed their contracts and increased enrollment. SDP, even with a $300 million budget deficit, chose to invest over $250,000 in Springboard Summer.

Finally, there is a discounting mechanism that incentivizes strong partnerships over time and gives Springboard some flexibility to charge different prices to different school networks.

Springboard has now received offers to expand into Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, DC. Unlike Philadelphia, these cities have active and well-developed summer learning communities, with market rates between $900 and $1,800 per student (including teacher costs). Given all this, Springboard had to develop a pricing strategy for two very different markets. They identified two buckets of costs: internal costs (schools cover) and partnership fees (schools pay Springboard $550/student), for a total of $850/student. Through creating shared systems, gaining economies of scale and managing efficiently, Springboard can offer a lower price point than any of its competitors. Springboard’s program costs are at least one-third lower than those of competitors, and the program generates reading gains that are 65% above the industry standard.

Springboard’s break-even financial model works because schools are transformed from within, using existing resources and ultimately reducing their risk of becoming dependent on Springboard’s programs and services.

Scaling Up

Given the magnitude of the literacy problem, additional funding and innovative thinking are needed. Springboard is looking to raise an additional $2 million over the next two years, enabling it to reach 4,000 children by 2015. In the next five years, Gac-Artigas envisions expanding to at least four cities if not more, maintaining six-month reading gains, having multiple programmatic offerings (summer and school year), and reaching 80% self-funded financial sustainability.

Gac-Artigas recognizes that the systems and programs Springboard is building must be replicable anywhere that has teachers, parents and children. Turnkey products need to be flexible and adjustable, which is why the organization is constantly exposing itself to different contexts, ultimately ensuring that it remains adaptable.

Gac-Artigas likes to think of Springboard as a the Intel chip inside a computer: “We hope to upgrade the computer with parent engagement but we need to build a chip that fits into any computer. We’re starting to consider if there’s an opportunity in which we can build the whole operating system. We’re not interested in building an entire school because of the human capital requirements, but we’re starting to think about what it looks like to comprehensively overhaul the way a school designs its operations that better leverages how parents are involved.”

Policy Implications

One of the lessons Springboard learned early on was how challenging Philadelphia’s political climate was: It’s actually one of the reasons the program has very little competition in the area.

In 2013, Philadelphia joined in the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a program committed to giving children the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom. City agencies and community groups led by Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the Urban Affairs Coalition will create a multiyear strategy that increases the number of public school students who read at grade level by the end of third grade. The four specific focuses align well with Springboard’s targets: high-quality early learning programs, summer reading efforts, aligned instructional practices that span pre-K to third grade, and reduced school absenteeism (Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia, 2013).  Springboard is actively participating in these discussions, and others in the Philadelphia literacy movement.

Increased literacy, parent-teacher collaboration and school transformation are all relatively uncontroversial, allowing Springboard’s focus to remain on generating outcomes that speak for themselves rather than entering into the political arena. Other similar organizations engage parents by encouraging them to lobby for low-income literacy improvement; Springboard is the only organization in the country that has cracked the code on actively involving parents in generating educational outcomes. Gac-Artigas is proud of the program’s unique teacher coaching and curriculum around parent teaching. However, he would be encouraged to see Springboard have a positive ripple effect on the national education system.

The national education discussion has become very focused on controlling student time in the classroom. Gac-Artigas believes the system has swung too far, to the point where our current system views parents as liabilities instead of assets and focuses solely on what goes on in the classroom, where students spend less than 25% of their waking hours. Springboard believes that by involving parents and teachers, the other 75% of a student’s time will be captured, greatly expanding the conversation and opportunities for learning. Springboard thinks it is more powerful to demonstrate that using what already exists works.


Alejandro Gac-Artigas acknowledges that while Springboard is making major strides in transforming adolescent literacy in the Philadelphia region, in order for its model to grow and make more of an impact, there are still more hurdles to overcome. School budgets are a moving target and are developed on a quarterly basis, making it hard to plan ahead or take risks. The structural barriers of the U.S. education system remain daunting and rigid. Even with engaged parents and involved teachers, challenges remain on the cost side of the equation, but living in poverty comes with overwhelming and intractable problems that make it difficult to change the cost side in the short term. Finally, even if you’re a great organization, replicating your outcomes at two to three times the scale year after year in order to make a dent at the scale at which your program already exists, bigger and more creative thinking is necessary.

Despite all that, Springboard has turned many of its challenges into assets. A tough financial climate forced the program to make itself cost-effective; rather than importing and hiring short-term instructors, Springboard helps school communities get more from the people and resources they already have; formerly unengaged parents not only become their children’s favorite teachers, they’re making reading progress alongside them, and cash-strapped schools are creating better teachers and stronger leaders while also saving money and creating long-term, sustainable transformation.

When asked why schools can’t do this on their own, Gac-Artigas answered: “Can schools do this on their own? We want the answer to be yes. When asked if they want to do it on their own, the answer right now seems to be no. This is where Springboard comes in.” 


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