Gaps in the education system, such as shortages of teachers and resources, exacerbate already high rates of school absenteeism and dropping out. This is especially true in many First Nations and urban underserved communities. Gabriel Bran Lopez is recentering the education system around students and co-creating engaging programs with local university students. He is doing so by giving voice to students in planning their classes. Gabriel also alters the existing infrastructure and education system to change the way teachers, administrators, parents, and students see themselves, leading to an empowered generation of leaders and future professionals.
The New Idea
Gabriel is engaging students and building a new education curriculum, drawing on the students’ interests. He is giving voice to high school students and building a partnership-based system that upgrades the education system and engages and retains students. Gabriel targets students who are most at risk of not graduating and lets them identify programming of interest to them, such as robotics, performance, and journalism. These classes supplement core curriculum and give students a reason to show up to school, get excited about something, and achieve success. Gabriel ensures that high school students sit on the selection committees and have a key voice in choosing the project coordinators hired from local universities and colleges to manage programs in their high schools. As such, he is demystifying post-secondary education, increasing student engagement, and showing youth an array of career opportunities.
University and college students are key actors in Gabriel’s program; serving as project coordinators at schools. Gabriel ensures there are three to five coordinators in each high school to develop and implement programming catered to the students’ interests. He is creating a movement of action-oriented post-secondary students and recent graduates. They gain experience launching sustainable programming and also engage with the challenges and opportunities within the public education system. In this way, Gabriel is seeding their lifelong growth as engaged citizens. He is also influencing teacher-training curriculum, by giving aspiring teachers the tools to make learning fun and relevant to their classes.
Gabriel is influencing the education system and the communities around each school by changing student, family, teacher, and administration perceptions of students’ capabilities. By creating conditions for success and highlighting student achievement through performances and recognition at conferences and competitions, Gabriel is affirming student potential and therefore changing the way the system around them supports future achievement.
Adolescence poses many challenges and these can be greater for youth in underserved urban and remote communities. School can seem a chore or necessity rather than a place for engaged learning and a supportive community, resulting in poor attendance and low graduation rates. The consequences of dropping out of high school extend beyond a lack of basic life skills such as literacy and numeracy. Dropping out decreases employment opportunities, increases feelings of disempowerment, and leads to social and political disengagement. It can also deprive communities of strong local leaders.
In Quebec, the percentage of teenagers who complete high school within five years is steadily declining. Currently, only 69 percent of students under 20 have received a high school diploma. In Cree communities, graduation rates range from 8 to 60 percent. In addition, absenteeism is very high everywhere in the Cree Nations: Students are absent an average of 43 days each year.
In many First Nations communities, schools suffer from extreme resource and teacher shortages. If a school does not have a science teacher, students may be asked to leave school property during their science period and return later in the day. Bureaucracy, lack of expertise and fatigue can all stand in the way of extracurricular activity and one-on-one student support. In addition to, and as a result of these challenges, students often feel disengaged from the education system. Material and curriculum can seem irrelevant and unrelatable. This increases absenteeism and creates gaps in knowledge, student engagement, and achievement. In addition, extracurricular programming in schools is often volunteer-run and may suffer from inconsistency.
Youth with a history of low achievement and who belong to cultural groups with below-average achievement may suffer from cultural stereotypes—assuming they will fail or perform poorly. Parents may not take an active role in directing their children’s education and can become accustomed to hearing negative things about their children (e.g. they are delinquents, involved with drugs, or dropouts).
Education is an interdependent system that is addressed primarily by the school boards. Although many citizen organizations (COs) manage programming to support education, the general population and most institutions do not see a role for themselves to be actively engaged in education (e.g. especially public education in underserved communities). On First Nations reserves, there are no universities, and few COs deal directly with dropout rates or the lack of resources and support in high schools.
Near the end of his studies in communications at Concordia University, Gabriel won a public speaking award and was invited by the donor to speak to high school students to understand their motivation for staying in and dropping out of school. Gabriel was struck by a particular group of youth who listed activities they would like to see in their schools. One teen caused Gabriel to reflect, when he asked if Gabriel would have time to respond if each student wrote to him with their programming idea for their school. Though he did not have time to respond to each email, from that point on, Gabriel decided to transform the education system in Quebec, to provide opportunities for the most challenged youth to envision and participate in the activities that would make school relevant to them.
Since 2008 Gabriel has been addressing student engagement, attendance, and graduation by creating exciting reasons for students to want to attend. He targets schools with the lowest graduation rates and liaises with the school administration and teachers to build programming requested by the students. Gabriel meets directly with students, starting with the least engaged, and asks them what they are interested in. He then builds programming in the schools to match these interests. The programming is delivered by post-secondary students and recent graduates. It is funded by universities, businesses, and COs, and supported by teachers, principals, and guidance counselors, coordinated with the support of local COs. In this way, Gabriel engages much of society to address systemic educational challenges.
In 2008 Gabriel piloted his program in the four lowest-ranked high schools in Montreal and one in the Cree Nations. One of his signature programs is a robotics program, managed in partnership with FIRST Robotics Quebec and Bombardier Inc.
Youth Fusion (YF), the organization Gabriel established in 2008 to implement this approach, hires post-secondary students to deliver activities in schools, co-developing them with high school students. YF project coordinators commit to a full-year engagement of 15 hours per week, enabling them to deliver consistent programs and build trust with students and schools. They receive course credit and/or remuneration for their commitment. Youth Fusion selects dynamic, independent, motivated applicants, those “with a spark”, with expertise in their field and demonstrated success delivering programming in that field. Candidates are selected by the YF team, and then interviewed by high school students. Coordinators undergo intensive training and are paired with school staff who provide them with support, and meet with YF staff once a week. Together, this process ensures high-quality and exciting programs that build youth’s confidence in themselves and in the education system.
Gabriel is also creating a movement of university students taking action on education and youth engagement. Many coordinators continue to work with YF throughout their university program and some stay in permanent positions in the schools upon graduating.
Gabriel helps high schools increase their own capacity. In addition to extracurricular student-centered activities, project coordinators develop creative, hands-on classroom workshops to reach a wider range of students and to provide support to teachers. This supports teacher development and helps increase programming in schools. For example, through the Robotics program, YF helps teachers develop programs in mechanics, electronics, and computer programming.
Gabriel is also building lasting relationships in city high schools and Cree Nations. He sees YF programming as a way to change the school dynamic in the long run. In the Cree Nations, YF sends recent graduates to work 25 to 35 hours per week in schools significantly lacking resources (e.g. physical, financial, and human). YF hires coordinators from faculties of Education and Native Studies with interest, experience, and knowledge of First Nations. After their YF placements, some coordinators have been offered permanent positions with the school board to stay and teach in the schools.
Participation in YF programs increases student engagement, attendance, and performance. Students have found new ways of learning and of expressing themselves through YF projects in cinema and video, law, radio, interculturalism, communications, theater, dance, and advanced robotics, radio, and online media. Gabriel shares experiences and success stories through newspapers, radio programs, and events (i.e. many of which are launched as YF student initiatives). This creates a sense of pride among students, schools, parents, and communities. By transforming mindsets—from feelings of struggle and failure to those of celebrating success and achievement—Gabriel is charting new opportunities and long-term changes for individuals and communities.
Gabriel currently involves 3,350 high school students in his program and plans to reach between 4,750 and 6,000 in the next two years. 250 students are in Cree Nations. Gabriel plans to engage at least 500 Cree high school students in the next two years.
In partnership with high schools and universities, Gabriel is measuring the impact of YF on academic performance, attendance, and graduation rates. One school announced a decrease of 10.2 percent in their dropout rate.
YF brings together schools and school boards, band councils, universities, companies, and COs. Financial support comes from universities (i.e. funding the salaries of project coordinators), companies (i.e. which provide grants and in-kinds to cover program costs) and increasingly from local governments—band councils and municipal agencies.
Gabriel’s process builds off of whatever school resources are available, but does not rely on any pre-existing conditions. He is committed to a vision of national impact. Gabriel is replicating his model in key schools in Ontario and prioritizing programming in First Nations schools. In 2011, Gabriel received a special citation as the Social Entrepreneur of the Year from Ernst & Young. This is a unique category among the awards is given in recognition of an entrepreneur whose achievements have driven large-scale social change and improved people’s lives or quality of life.
Gabriel was born in Guatemala. His mother is Mayan and taught Mayan language and culture during a time when a civil war waged to eradicate Mayan culture. Gabriel’s father is from El Salvador and was a pop singer in a famous music group in his country. Gabriel is one of three siblings. When his pregnant mother’s life was threatened by the military, the family finally left Guatemala and moved to Canada. Gabriel arrived in Canada at a young age as part of an immigrant family who lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a rough neighbourhood in Montreal. He saw his parents struggle with language and employment—both ended up working in a factory.
Gabriel faced racism in high school and elementary school and almost dropped out due to these barriers. At 11, Gabriel was traumatized after a teacher taped his mouth in front of the class as a form of discipline for chatting with his peers. He struggled to find his voice during his early teenage years. Gabriel had a turning point in his life when a teacher recognized his talent and invited him to become part of a theater group. This is when he discovered his talent for acting and found a way to be engaged in school.
Gabriel started a theater troupe, which put on plays about social issues and used the performances to raise funds for organizations related to that issue. He also helped to create the first student council at his school, created leadership programs, and organized sports events—all of which continue to exist. His engagement in his high school education was the seed for what Gabriel would launch during his university career.
Gabriel’s family has always been supportive and he and his two siblings encouraged and supported each other to attain the university degrees their parents never had the opportunity to pursue.