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One Day Magazine

Meet the Finalists for Teach For America's Social Innovation Award

Camps for Navajo youth, art classes for distressed undocumented families, and sex education via phones. Meet the finalists for Teach For America's 2018 Social Innovation Awards.

By Paula Ann Solis

May 17, 2018

Ten finalists for Teach For America’s 2018 Social Innovation Awards are chipping away at persistent barriers to educational excellence by launching ventures in tech, art programs, advocacy, and more. These Teach For America alumni submitted their projects to be considered in two tracks: the early-stage Pre-Pilot Track for projects not yet fully developed, and the Overall Track. Winners from the two tracks will receive $20,000 and up to $100,000, respectively, to continue their efforts.

Here is how these finalists described their projects, their goals, and the sources of their motivation.

Pre-Pilot Track

Cecile Claridge (Miami-Dade ’13)

Unicoin

What’s your project?
Unicoin is a web application that assists students in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) through a combination of technologies that simplify the experience.
 

What prompted this venture?
I’ve seen students overcome inconceivable obstacles and maintain their motivation to pursue higher education, only to have something go wrong with financial aid that derails their college plans. Understanding the financial aid application process is the biggest barrier to college access that many kids face. Applying for financial aid is stressful, time-consuming, and complex, and all of this disproportionately affects first-generation college students.

What are your goals?
I want the project to help more first-generation college students, students from immigrant families, and students living in poverty successfully apply for and receive the financial aid they need to go to college. Many students in Unicoin’s target user groups qualify for Pell Grants: federal funds specifically set aside to help students from low-income families pay for college. Yet each year, billions of dollars in Pell Grants go unclaimed simply because eligible students do not apply for financial aid. Unicoin has the power to change that.

Sharon Michaels (D.C. Region ’13)

LABFOURSEVEN

What’s your project?
LABFOURSEVEN partners with schools and districts to accelerate the language development of English language learners. Instructional coaches certified in language acquisition work with teachers to master culturally and linguistically responsive teacher actions.

What impact have you seen so far?
Since launching, I’ve heard from teachers and other leaders that there is a need for LABFOURSEVEN’s specialized work. Many have shared with me that while they have a large population of English language learners in their schools, many teachers and instructional coaches are not certified in language acquisition. People are eager to see a solution to help close the achievement gap for English language learners.

What are your hopes?
We must invest in the preparation, support, and development of those teaching English language learners to make the dramatic academic gains necessary to level the playing field in our nation’s most vulnerable communities. LABFOURSEVEN will help teachers become better, faster so all students can reach their highest potential.

Adnan Pirzada (Mississippi ’10)

Clarify

What’s your project?
Clarify makes teachers and school administrators their own data experts by making the experience of getting and sharing data as easy as finding and sharing Pinterest boards. Teachers lose valuable time just getting all their data in front of them, let alone analyzing and acting on it. Clarify is the intuitive, time-saving search experience we’ve come to expect in 2018.

What prompted this venture?
I remember as a teacher being asked to bring gradebooks and standardized test data to a meeting to do by-hand calculations to help us project where students would end up the next semester. The data was segmented in isolated, hard-to-navigate systems. There was no expertise or professional development to get that meaningful information to us fast enough. That night, I ran the data through Excel, sparing the staff hours of work. It was my first glimpse into a problem that was much more pervasive than I could imagine. I eventually decided to commit myself to solving this problem fulltime.

What are your goals?
Almost half of teachers across the country don’t review data to inform their instruction. Clarify will not only be a window into a school’s data landscape, but a catalyst for creating a larger data-driven culture to focus instruction and improve student outcomes.

Samantha Pratt and David Ostergren (both Miami-Dade ’15)

KlickEngage

What’s your project?
KlickEngage is a web-based app for students to self-report their emotional well-being daily through a survey format. It provides them with individualized coping mechanisms they can use to understand and regulate their emotions throughout the day. Teachers also get real-time reports of student emotions that can be used to provide preventative services early.

What prompted this venture?
While doing a research study in her senior year at New York University, Samantha found there was not enough information around the connection between community and complex trauma and school engagement. It was infuriating. As teachers, we discovered that students need spaces to understand and reflect on their emotions, and teachers need an efficient way of learning about their students’ emotions.

What are your hopes?
With limited access to mental health services in low-income community schools, students are not emotionally equipped to engage with their learning. Our hope for KlickEngage is that if we can give students control over their emotional states, we can increase their graduation rates and long-term adaptive skills for sustainable careers.

Bene Webster (G.N.O.—LAD ’13) and Sarah Engle

UsPlus Learning

What’s your project?
UsPlus Learning provides public elementary school teachers with free, easy-to-use and easy-to-implement curriculum resources to support the development of their students’ relationship skills. We plan to expand our offerings to include a wider range of social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies, but we are first targeting relationship skills as they are absolutely essential for students to be successful in the classroom and in the world.

What prompted this venture?
Most SEL materials on the market do not integrate academic content into their programming. In an urgent race against the achievement gap, public schools must prioritize ELA and math time over SEL. Because of this, only certain students benefit from crucial SEL instruction and development. The emphasis on standards-based achievement coupled with a de-prioritization of social and emotional development is a problem that deeply affects millions of students across the country.

What are your goals?
We envision a world in which young students are empowered in schools to advocate for their needs and opinions, and are supported in their quest to do so. With the support of school leaders, teachers can use our resources so consistently that classrooms become more collaborative and student-driven. UsPlus Learning can catalyze a cultural shift within schools to being more supportive of student autonomy and agency through the teaching of interpersonal competencies.

Overall Track

Sam Battan (G.N.O—LAD ’11)

Colorado Youth Congress

What’s your project?
The Colorado Youth Congress organizes and trains high school students to lead systems change. We recruit students from urban, suburban, and rural communities to build relationships, set a public agenda, and form campaigns to advance an equitable future. Each team gets $500, coaching, and accesses a network of systems leaders.

What prompted this venture?
As an educator, I’ve witnessed those I love suffer at the hands of systemic racism. And it wasn’t just the education system that was unjust. It was criminal justice, housing, healthcare, and transportation. These problems are systemic and young people are upset, yet we’re not training them how to actually change systems. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve with the Colorado Youth Congress.

What impact have you seen so far?
We launched in November of 2017 with 50 students and have grown to 115 young people leading nine different campaigns for systems change. Students are leading the charge to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for school board, improve equity in school finance, and change the name of a school named after a KKK leader. We’ve witnessed a remarkable shift in mindsets, a deepening of relationships, and a real sense of agency within our students. As we grow, we’ll continue to drive towards an unstoppable generation of young people working across lines of difference to bring a society that benefits everyone.

Liz Chen (Eastern North Carolina ’10), Vichi Jagannathan (E.N.C. ’11), and Cristina Leos

Real Talk

What’s your project? 
The mobile app Real Talk is the first product from MyHealthEd, a tech nonprofit that uses human-centered design to support the health and well-being for youth of every identity. Real Talk uses real stories written by teens to help teens ages 13 to 15 learn about sexual health and healthy relationships. New stories are published daily and align to the National Sexuality Education Standards. We pair stories with high-quality online sexual health resources from organizations like Planned Parenthood and Amaze.org.

What prompted this venture? 
As teachers in Eastern North Carolina, we saw a high number of female students become pregnant and have to make difficult choices about their futures. Although sex education is legally mandated in North Carolina public schools, there are too many barriers to delivering high quality sex education to students. We first created an online sex education course for high school students back in 2013, and we spent two years working with teens to develop and launch Real Talk.

What impact have you seen so far? 
Real Talk has reached 7,000 teens in all 50 states and more than 70 countries who have collectively read more than 73,000 stories and accessed more than 1,700 online resources. We have collected more than 500 stories on topics from dealing with acne to seeking affirmative consent from romantic partners. Nearly 70 percent of teens say they learned something new after using the app. Our goal is to bring Real Talk to 100,000 teens by 2020.

Shani Jackson Dowell (Houston ’06)

Possip

What’s your project?
Possip combines technology and people to give schools weekly parent feedback and help schools and districts make meaning of the feedback. Parents get weekly, standardized Possip surveys that can be answered in less than one minute via text or email. Principals get a weekly synthesized report that summarizes the feedback, provides actionable recommendations, and supports school follow up.

What prompted this venture? 
I’m a former educator, mom of two schoolchildren, and wife of a school leader. I know the impact of limited channels for parents to share their feedback and perspective and how hard a principal’s job is. Without regular check-ins, parents only share feedback when they are frustrated or when there is an immediate issue. Possip allows for timely feedback and supports principals simultaneously.

What impact have you seen so far? 
With almost 4,000 parents in six states using Possip, we’ve collected over 30 weeks of feedback and have seen teachers get celebrated, kids get social issues resolved, school operations improve, and school leaders improve the conversations in their schools. Our hope is that parents will believe themselves to be important assets for schools, and that relationships built by Possip will create strong feedback loops between parents and schools.

Reyna Montoya (Phoenix ’14)

Aliento

What’s your project?
Aliento is a community organization that is undocumented and youth-led. We understand the impact of trauma in communities that have faced structural violence. At Aliento, we believe in transforming trauma into hope and action. We are directly-impacted people and allies, invested in the well-being, emotional healing, and leadership development of people impacted by the inequalities of lacking documented status.

What prompted this venture? 
I grew up undocumented in Arizona and separated from my detained father. I knew what I needed to do to fight his deportation, but I didn’t know how to process. I used dance as a form to express myself. That experience inspired me to use art as medium where people can reconnect with their humanity and find their own voice and power.

What impact have you seen so far? 
At Aliento, we see people finding their voices and connecting with others who face similar fears and anxieties. Together they transform those feelings into hope. We’ve given more than 25 arts and healing workshops, organized 12 open mics, and we’ve trained over 6,000 allies on how to be more supportive of undocumented students and families. We hope to create a pipeline of leaders invested in improving the well-being of undocumented youth and children who live in mixed status families for years to come.

Claire Opel (New Mexico ’10) and Leah Strelsin (New Mexico ’11)

Summer Youth Corporation

What’s your project?
Summer Youth Corporation operates a free day camp for children on and around Navajo Nation, where suicide risk is significantly higher than the national average. Balanced living and positive youth development models help children explore their “best selves” and strengthen protective factors that combat youth suicide. SYC succeeds because of the staff’s collective leadership; counselors hail from local communities, contributing their ideas, strengths, and experiences for a meaningful camp experience.

What prompted this venture?
As educators, our students’ potential, eagerness to learn, and diverse talents were obvious, as were the community’s strengths. But indigenous communities still resist centuries of violence and oppression. We imagined a space to ensure the balanced well-being and positive development of students, especially those struggling in school settings. We know camp can be more than a summer program, and we envisioned a community-run camp accessible to our students that would connect them to amazing mentors.

What impact have you seen so far? 
SYC has served more than 100 children, and more than 50 percent have returned for an additional summer. We measure self-esteem, connectedness, resilience, and an understanding of balanced living through surveys, interviews, and art. Our counselors work to model self-esteem and help campers recognize and believe in their positive attributes. Campers can name and explain positive qualities about themselves. We hope to create a cycle of leadership where our kids shape the current camp experience and become SYC’s future.