By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Even as Philadelphia public school closures and the looming financial crisis have made the past several months tough for the city's schoolchildren, a small education startup is shining the light of optimism on some area students.
Five weeks ago, 10-year-old Erasmo Santiago Jr. described himself as a slow reader.
"Now I'm reading a little bit faster, and I improved my level of going to fifth grade," says Santiago, who received an award of perfect attendance at the closing ceremony at McKinley Elementary in North Philadelphia. "I learned a lot -- reading is hard. But if you keep reading, you get better."
Santiago got a laptop, several books, and more for his achievement in Springboard Collaborative's summer reading program. The startup got more than $100,000 from the school district in May to work with kids at four Philadelphia public elementary schools.
"We train parents to be their child's reading teacher at home, using the same strategies teachers use during the school year in the classroom," says Alejandro Gac-Artigas, who started Springboard in 2011.
He says teachers instruct parents how to choose an appropriate book for their child's reading level, and how to read with students to ensure comprehension.
"The parent is able to read with their kid one-on-one and gain expertise on the unique needs of their child," says Gac-Artigas. "We found that kids learn at three times the rate when parents collaborate with teachers."
At 24, Gac-Artigas has a degree from Harvard and is an author. He says he figured out quickly after teaching at a school in Kensington that something had to change in inner-city schools, where months of reading achievement gains are erased by summer reading losses. (Students in higher-income neighborhoods actually gained over the summer.)
"It was a problem that I believe is highly solvable," he says. "Our hope is to close the reading achievement gap by fourth grade."
Gac-Artigas says 94 percent of families from district schools participated in weekly one-hour workshops for parents, and says early results show kids gained three months of reading progress during the program.
"I learned a whole lot of strategies for working with my daughter," says Shatina Watkins. "It was great."
Watkins' daughter, Shayniyah, will be attending McKinley beginning next month, after her previous school was shuttered in the last round of closures.
"The program also gave me a chance to get to know the teacher and principal," she says, "so now it won't be as big of a shock when she starts here in September."
Gac-Artigas says 650 Philadelphia elementary school students -- 300 from public schools and 350 from charter schools -- participated in the program. For more information, go to springboardcollaborative.org.
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