BREAK THE BARRIER

Imagine a classroom of high school freshmen in the Chicago Public School system, a class that happens to consist entirely of first generation immigrants of Hispanic descent. How many of these kids do you think will receive a college Bachelor's degree in their lifetime?

The answer is 12.5%.

Yes, you read that right.

 

THE CHALLENGE

It is no secret that first generation immigrants face many hardships. Adapting to a new culture, new language, and new way of life is already difficult enough, and this is before you factor the need for many high school-age children to go straight to work upon completion of school to help support the family. It would be easy, then, to just write off the astoundingly low college persistence figures among immigrants as a byproduct of these hardships.

What we can't write off, however, is this: more than 25% of immigrant students with a GPA of 3.5 or higher do not enroll in a college. They have the academic performance for grants and scholarships, and yet, they face some kind of invisible barrier to achieving their dreams.

bar·ri·er

/ˈberēər/

(noun)

A circumstance or obstacle that keeps people or things apart or prevents communication or progress.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER...YOU KNOW...ASIDE FROM THE WHOLE 'HELPING PEOPLE' THING?

Because bachelor degree holders spend on average...

$278,314 more on local goods and services

$43,888 more in local and state taxes

Over the course of their lifetime than high school diploma holders with no Bachelor's degree.

That is approximately $6,500 per year.

Above, we learned that Bachelor's degree persistence average rate for Latino CPS students stands at 12.5%, or 22,598 of 180,790 students.

If we increase the persistence rate of these freshmen by a mere 7.5% to become 20% we as a city gain...

0.075 x 180,790     =

13,559 college graduates

13,559 x $6500      =

$88,000,000 per year, in local spending from ONLY 7.5% of ONLY Hispanic students

That is equal to almost the entirety of the Chicago Public School system's yearly transportation budget.

 

MY ROLE

As part of a multi-disciplinary team of students (all of whom, including myself, happened to be first-generation immigrants) at the Illinois Institute of Technology, I took the leading role on the project, determining the direction of research, developing the design of our product, as well as creating the majority of the graphic, written, and oral presentation material. 

 

THE MISSING LINK

After researching the key contributors to a child's college persistence, the team and I discovered a curious observation. Research conducted by The Parent Institute indicated that "in the US, 64% in differences in achievement from one school to another were attributable to "home" variables, such as "parental support for academic achievement."'

45% of English-speaking parents volunteered for school-related activities in 2012.

Compared to only 23% of non-English speaking parents.

INSTEAD OF THE KIDS, THE PARENTS BECAME OUR USERS

Over the course of the interviews with first-generation immigrant parents, it became apparent that:

▪   Many had cultural and language barriers with teachers

▪   They attended parent-teacher conferences only sporadically

▪   A majority did not see a way to learn about college admissions

▪   They felt uncomfortable, out of place, as if they didn't belong

▪   This contributed to a lack of trust for teachers and administrators

Therefore, barriers breed distrust and disengagement in parents...

Children, still substantially influenced by their parents, absorb this distrust and disengagement...

Which ultimately limits their interest and prevents them from truly being able to explore their options and learn about higher education opportunities that may already exist for them.

In order to remedy this issue we needed to address the point where the disconnect initially happens: not necessarily between the teachers and the students, but between the teachers and the parents. If we could bridge the gap, or Break the Barrier, in trust between the two groups, the effect on each child's educational experience would snowball at every stage.

We needed to create an interface.

in·ter·face

/ˈin(t)ərˌfās/

(noun)

A point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc. meet and interact.

The bridging of cultural gaps and creation of trust and understanding is not a quick task, however, nor should it ever be forced. It takes time, which means our "interface" between parents and teachers would have to start to take shape in elementary and middle school, so that parents feel fully comfortable and included by the time high school begins.

But how do we even begin to break down these barriers?

 

BUILDING THE BRIDGE

As it turns out, building trust and humanity in relationships is as much about what you do as it is about what you don't do. In the mid-20th century, a highly acclaimed author, urbanist, and critic by the name of Jane Jacobs was analyzing what makes a truly good, safe, and pleasant neighborhood, and she came to the same conclusion: the bonds between the people do. To our great joy, she had also discovered arguably the best method to build strong bonds between people.

LOW COMMITMENT INTERACTION

To paraphrase her words in our educational context, if an environment or relationship lacks low commitment interaction, users must engage their private lives to have contact...so they settle for lack of contact. This means that if someone who already feels out of place or does not feel comfortable speaking or socializing is forced into an environment where socialization is the main focus, they will try to avoid the experience at all costs.

 

Low commitment interaction, on the other hand, leverages three key qualities that appeal to our users perfectly.

Users don't feel like they are locked into the interaction with no way to escape if they get socially exhausted.

Socialization is actually not the main focus of the interaction - another activity typically takes priority.

There is no expectation to share sensitive information, which is needed when "getting to know" someone. 

The punch line of the concept of low commitment interaction, is that it starts with the smallest, most simple things, such as saying "good morning" to your neighbor as you pass him or her on the sidewalk or passing the salt at a dinner. Things that do not require very much social interaction. But if done day after day, week after week, slowly but surely, trust begins to build. Eventually, "could you pass the salt" turns into "how was your week", which turns into "how is your child doing at school".

 

The most committed relationships are proven to often start with the lowest commitment interactions.

If this is done between parents and teachers, from the moment a child enters elementary school all the way through their high school graduation, parents and teachers and school administrators can begin to build a level of trust and genuine friendship that humanizes all parties involved and makes it easier to talk about complex, tough issues, like a child's future.

Imagine a series of informal events that both parents and teachers would genuinely want to go to. Things like cooking classes or wood crafting workshops that target activities people already like to do on their own, but simply supply tools or instruction that people would appreciate having. Parents and teachers would come to these events, and if they so choose, they would make their wooden key holders or cook their pierogi in silence. But with every passing of the salt or the chisel, however, these events would build the foundation of friendship and trust.

THE PRODUCT BECAME LESS OF A PRODUCT AND MORE OF A PROCESS

Working with hugely diverse demographics, however, we couldn't simply design a couple of events and call it quits. The activities, their schedule, frequency, and group size would all have to be able to adapt to each demographic group that they served.

 

Instead, we created a 6 Step process that would generate custom events with custom schedules to suit their unique users. This process would be made available as a printed and bound booklet as well as a digital PDF to local community organizations which had credibility and trust among the families living in nearby neighborhoods, and would be run on a grassroots, bottom-up strategy.

Step 1:

Conduct an open-ended interviews with a small pool of parents, teachers, and school administrators to get a general feel for users' schedules, interests, and so on. Tally up the responses to choose the top 4 or 5 options for event days, times, activities, and locations, and so forth.

Step 2:

Use the top options found in Step 1 to fill in the blanks in the user survey template (provided in several languages as part of the packet) and distribute the template out to a larger segment of parents and teachers in the community. A map of yearly and bi-yearly educational summits was provided to make large scale survey distribution easier.

Step 3:

Armed with the results of the survey, create budgets for the chosen activities.

Step 4:

Using the data from Steps 2 and 3, propose the events to the school district.

Step 5:

Start conducting the sessions, listen to feedback from users, and adjust them on the fly as needed.

Step 6:

The first people to get involved in the sessions will be those members of the community who are already active in the school district. However, if the users enjoy what the events have to offer, word will spread through the community's own low-commitment channels, and attendance will continue to grow until it encompasses those who would have been hesitant to join from the beginning.

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