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Meet the Winners of Teach For America's Social Innovation Award
Last month three winners were chosen from 10 finalists for Teach For America’s Social Innovation Award. The annual competition brings together budding alumni and corps member entrepreneurs to compete for seed funding to develop social ventures focused on eliminating barriers to educational equity and excellence.
The winning projects are categorized into two tracks: A pre-pilot track for projects not yet fully developed, and an overall track for projects that have already been tested. Winners from each track will receive up to $20,000 and $100,000, respectively, as well as professional coaching to continue developing their projects.
The award is not only an opportunity to nurture innovative ideas that address the most persistent problems our students face—it also brings much needed diversity into the social entrepreneur space. Currently, only 17 percent of all start-ups in the U.S. are founded by women, and 13 percent of venture capital-backed founders are people of color. Over the past seven years, 68 percent of the winning organizations for the Social Innovation Award were founded by women, and 59 percent were founded by people of color, bringing leaders into the field who are more representative of the student population in our country. To date, the Social Innovation Award has provided seed grants and in-kind consulting to support forty ventures that have impacted millions of students in low-income schools and surrounding communities.
At this year’s award dinner celebrating the finalists, we announced the renaming of the award in honor of Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock, fierce advocates of educational equity and excellence and two of TFA’s greatest champions. As a pioneer in the innovation sector who is credited for giving rise to Silicon Valley, Arthur has spurred an entrepreneurial culture at TFA and has been a key driver of our social entrepreneurship and innovation work. Moving forward, The Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Social Innovation Award will usher in a new era of leaders working to improve the lives of students across the country.
Here’s how this year’s award winners are making a difference with students and families in the communities we serve.
Summer Youth Corporation (Overall track)
Claire Opel (New Mexico ’10) and Leah Strelsin (New Mexico ’11)
As educators serving in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Claire and Leah saw firsthand how the mental health of their students was impacted by poverty and a long history of cultural oppression within the education system. The suicide rate among Navajo youth is more than double the national average. And many underfunded schools have had to make the impossible choice of prioritizing test scores over the mental well-being of students in order to receive funding.
Their organization, Summer Youth Corporation aims to take a proactive approach to mental health wellbeing by providing enrichment activities for youth before they become at-risk for harmful behavior. The program runs a free summer day camp for 60 Navajo children ages 4-14 in Thoreau, NM, where kids can participate in sports, arts, music, nature exploration, and activities that celebrate the Diné culture.
Claire and Leah intentionally designed the program around protective factors identified by the Suicide Resource Prevention Center that lower the risk of suicide among youth, including self esteem, connectedness, and resilience. The camp offers students a safe place to practice resilience amidst the challenges of life in a low-stakes environment. In the three years since Summer Youth Corporation was founded, the camp has served over 100 children from the Thoreau area—impacting nearly seven percent of school-aged children in the community.
Claire and Leah hope to increase the number of students they reach by creating a “camp curriculum” that teachers can use during the school year to bring more social-emotional learning, problem-solving, and exploratory learning into the classroom. They are also working to build a youth-leadership program that will give former campers the opportunity to be counselors.
KlickEngage (Pre-Pilot track)
Samantha Pratt (Miami-Dade ’15)
Youth growing up in low-income urban environments are at a higher risk for experiencing complex trauma from outside stressors beyond their control such as poverty, racism and domestic violence. While school becomes the primary place that many students turn to for help, only 20 percent of students in low-income schools actually receive services due to a lack of resources. With limited access to mental health services schools, students struggle with being present in class and are not emotionally equipped to engage with their learning.
Samantha’s experience as a teacher working with students experiencing complex trauma led her to found KlickEngage, an app that students can use on their phones to report what they are feeling each day using a survey format. In addition to providing students with individualized coping mechanisms they can use to understand and regulate their emotions, teachers also get real-time reports on student wellbeing that they can use to provide early preventative services.
Samantha is currently piloting KlickEngage in a classroom of 20 students. By the upcoming academic year, she plans to scale the project to at least 20 classrooms impacting roughly 400 students. Improving student wellbeing remains her ultimate goal. In addition to seeing increased graduation rates, Samantha hopes that this program will also provide evidence for the need to fund mental health services proportionate to student need and raise awareness for complex trauma in low-income communities.
Unicoin (Pre-Pilot track)
Cece Claridge (Miami-Dade ’13)
As a teacher, Cece Claridge saw her 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. The complexity of applying for financial aid has a disproportionately negative impact on first-generation college students, students from immigrant families, and students living in poverty. These groups often face logistical challenges to completing the application and may not have adults in their support network who have the experience to guide them through it.
Cece founded Unicoin as a way to make the process for applying for financial aid more approachable and offer the guidance that many students were lacking. The web application assists students in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) through a combination of technologies that simplify the experience. After building a beta version of Unicoin last year, Cecile has interviewed hundreds of students, families, educators, and other stakeholders about how best to support students through the process of applying for financial aid. She’s pitched the project to a variety of audiences within the Miami ed tech community and has received unanimous feedback that Unicoin could be a game-changer for students seeking financial aid for college.
While first-generation college students often face many additional barriers to getting to college, Cecile refuses to let the financial application process be one of them. Each year, billions of dollars in Pell Grants—federal funds to help students from low-income families pay for college—go unclaimed simply because eligible students do not have the support to apply for financial aid. Unicoin has the power to change that. In the long term, she hopes that Unicoin’s success will open up opportunities to partner with the Department of Education to make structural changes to the FAFSA that make it more accessible for all students and families.
Learn more about Teach For America’s Social Innovation Award and timeline for the next application window.