Imran Khan

Ashoka Fellow
imran_khan_-_headshot.jpg
United States
Fellow Since 2016

Check out this video for more on Imran's work:

This description of Imran Khan's work was prepared when Imran Khan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016 .

Introduction

Understanding that laws, policies and infrastructure have historically been designed to keep the low-income community from attaining a better quality of life, Imran Khan has identified how to increase the intrinsic motivation and skills of inner-city youth to counter these structures. By facilitating sustained interaction between the youth, the city and its citizens, Imran proves that experiential development has as crucial a role to play as cognitive development in the educational setting.

The New Idea

As an educator at Harper High School, labeled “the most dangerous high school in America” with 29 students shot in the 2012 school year, Imran remembers being baffled that his students were not latching onto one of the most important “keys” that could get them out of the violence – namely, their education.

Through piloting the Embarc program with key collaborator January Miller, Imran has since identified the hidden gap preventing youth from grabbing hold of that key: a lack of intrinsic motivation in students who cannot see the connection between educational attainment and increased quality of life. Embarc started as an after-school program in three Chicago High Schools and is now a leader in the field of experiential development. Embarc’s drives student success through social and cultural exposure, using a three-year, three-level approach that awakens students to the possibilities of their potential by dissolving the borders in the city and in their minds.

Imran recalls a classroom lesson on Hamlet, in which he posed a moral question to his students: if your mom is in a grocery store with your little sister, is it wrong for her to eat some grapes to test their ripeness, if she does not plan to pay for them? Rather than answer the question, the students expressed great confusion at the grocery stores that Imran identified in his prompt. Imran realized the wide disconnect between classroom pedagogy and the experiences these youth brought with them.

Imran has identified that poverty is “a physical manifestation of an internal lack of experiences” for the thousands of individuals living in the South Side of Chicago. While many of his youth had never left the four-block radius of their schools, Imran provides them with a series of immersive journeys that connect them and the larger Chicago community to the same cultural fabric, through exposure to businesses, universities, grocery stores, art museums, restaurants, and partners from over 200 institutions including Google and Leo Burnett. Many youth also experience an internalized sense of not belonging due to the segregation of their city. Embarc engages partner institutions to realize the structures they reinforce that cause this segregation and to act in changing them.

Chicago is one the most segregated metro areas in the country. The poverty rate for African Americans is at 33.6%, two times the figure for Caucasians. The unemployment rate is 14.7% for African Americans compared to 5.7% for Caucasians. The effects of institutional racism, redlining, and zoning laws have led to disproportionately different qualities of life for the black community in the South Side of Chicago, compared to the white communities that live on the North side and downtown. This has led to a segregated Chicago designed to leave minorities unable to access the resources and economic prosperity of Chicago. The youth who grow up in Englewood and other neighborhoods in the South Side experience the effects of this isolation and segregation in obvious ways: many have never left the few blocks between their school and home, and feel deeply unwelcome in other parts of the city.

Perhaps the most acute way in which segregation affects the lives of these youth is through the violence that permeates their neighborhoods and their schools. Chicago had 468 murders in 2015, and many of them happened in public places like parks and alleyways. Many high school youth in the South Side have personally seen others get shot. Students know more people who are in jail, or have been shot or killed than they do with a college degree. With students so focused on self-preservation day-to-day, it becomes difficult to understand the importance of educational achievement, or to plan for it long term. Without access to models of success, and lacking exposure to colleges, careers, arts and culture, many students move through their high school years with limited ideas about what is possible in their own lives.

Despite this reality of isolation, the school system continues to grow even more focused on academics and test scores. Nationally, publishing companies and government bodies continue to cite standardized testing as the answer to educational improvement, with students spending more time taking tests than ever before.

Instead, Embarc closes the opportunity gap for youth through deep cultural exposure to their city and its inhabitants, dissecting the issue of segregation for the students in Chicago Public schools.

Imran uses public education as a pathway to dismantle the structures and systems – including distribution of funding, gerrymandering, zoning laws and more – in a city that has been designed to keep a certain demographic from achieving its full potential

The Problem

Chicago is one the most segregated metro areas in the country. The poverty rate for black folks is at 33.6%, two times the figure for white folks. The unemployment rate is 14.7% for blacks compared to 5.7% for whites. The effects of institutional racism, redlining, and zoning laws have led to disproportionately different qualities of life for the black community in the South Side of Chicago, compared to the white communities that live on the North side and downtown [1]. This has led to a segregated Chicago designed to leave black folks unable to access the resources and economic prosperity of life downtown. The youth who grow in Englewood and other neighborhoods in the South Side experience the effects of this isolation and segregation in obvious ways: many have never left the few blocks between their school and home, and feel deeply unwelcome in other parts of the city.

Perhaps the most acute way in which segregation affects the lives of these youth is through the violence that permeates their neighborhoods and their schools. Chicago had 468 murders in 2015, and many of them happened in public places like parks and alleyways [2]. Students know more people who are in jail, or have been shot or killed than they do with a college degree. With students so focused on self-preservation day-to-day, it becomes difficult to understand the importance educational achievement, or to plan for it long term. Without access to models of success, and lacking exposure to colleges, careers, arts and culture, many students move through their high school years with limited ideas about what is possible in their own lives.

Despite this reality of isolation, the school system continues to grow even more focused on academics and test scores. Nationally, publishing companies and government bodies continue to cite standardized testing as the answer to educational improvement, with students spending more time taking tests than ever before.

Instead, EMBARC closes the opportunity gap for youth through deep cultural exposure to their city and its inhabitants, dissecting the issue of segregation for the students in Chicago Public schools.

Imran uses public education as a pathway to dismantle the structures and systems – including distribution of funding, gerrymandering, zoning laws and more – in a city that has been designed to keep a certain demographic from achieving its full potential.

[1] Luhby, Tami. "Chicago: America's Most Segregated City." Jan 5 2016. Web. October 10 2016. <http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/05/news/economy/chicago-segregated/>
[2] Sanburn, Josh. "Chicago Shootings and Murders Surged in 2015" Jan 2 2016. Web. October 10 2016. <http://time.com/4165576/chicago-murders-shootings-rise-2015/>

The Strategy

Imran remarks on how tourists come from halfway across the world to see Millennium Park, but his students – who are Chicago natives -- have never visited the Bean. He remembers taking them to a burger place, and how surprised his students were that a teacher’s salary could afford a meal at a nice restaurant. He remembers grabbing a seat next to his students during lunchtime. These students had previously only seen the strawberries he had packed for lunch in a photograph.

His youth were unable to imagine the multitude of possibilities past their high school years, or past the borders of their neighborhood. Understanding that structural oppression has worked to diminish the intrinsic motivation and skills of students, Imran is re-invigorating it through experiential development. The goal is to tackle the isolation & segregation facilitated by the public school system, and to break down the walls that separated the classroom from the city. Imran says:

Our work is showing that this isolation is one of the key facts in the achievement gap and that experiences are fundamental to educational success for low income students. Embarc believes that experiences should not be relegated to those who can attend afterschool programs or extracurricular activities, but rather that they should simply be part of the educational lexicon and fundamental to our theory of education just like math, science, or reading is.

High school principals began to demand the Embarc programming, which led him to pilot in three Chicago high schools with similar demographics to Harper. Imran continued to teach full-time as he managed Embarc in these three city schools, acknowledging the advantages he had in beta-testing as a teacher-insider.

Given the national attention on Harper High, especially after NPR’s two-part “This American Life” episode detailing the day-to-day realities of the students in attendance, a great deal of money and attention started flooding into Harper, and data was recorded on the progress of each student against each programmatic intervention. Imran’s Embarc, which was already in motion, demonstrated great results compared to other interventions.

Imran used this data to prove the program’s value to Chicago’s Department of Education. A major inflection point was when Chicago Public Schools include Embarc as an official classroom course – principals throughout the city could now request to host Embarc at their high schools just by entering its special numeric code in a database. Unlike other educational interventions in Chicago, which are top-down and not educator-inspired, Embarc’s success was linked to Imran’s understanding of how to navigate the institutional nature of Chicago public school system. Embarc would therefore transform from an after-school program, to a daily, three-year classroom module integrated into the school day.

Core to Embarc’s model are Experiences. These are journeys, partners, and key values shared in lesson plan format. This includes highly curated knowledge on what makes something a tremendous development experience, how to facilitate interactions when students first encounter a situation, how to devise the experiences into sections (before, during, after), and then how to guide them in reflection following the journey. Experiences include: journeys to businesses, nonprofits, university partners, and cultural institutions; curated, school-based workshops by community partners; and life-story exchanges with corporate partners. A selection of Embarc’s 200+ partners include Leo Burnett, Google, Catholic Charities, Bucketfeet, Lookingglass Theater, Arrupe College of Loyola University, Hogsalt Restaurant Group, Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, and the Joffrey Ballet.

Further, the daily classroom curriculum is organized into thematic project based units that follow the trajectory of a student’s personal development. In the sophomore year, exercises focus on students honing in on an internal sense of self. Students gain a deep understanding of their personal values and the idea that their individual voice matters. In the junior year, students understand how to build and discern a positive support network while being exposed to a variety of success pathways that are available to them. In the senior year, students focus on making informed decisions on postsecondary pathways that will allow them to pursue their passions and become the leaders of their communities. They further establish their leadership by moving out into their communities to enact service-learning projects that interact with the city. These units work to help students feel comfortable stepping out of their neighborhoods, learn how to best connect with the community partners they will meet in Chicago, and understand their own rights and civic duties to the city they grew up in.

Embarc serves 700 students in 14 schools this year, and this number will go up to 1175 kids in 22 schools in 2019, with a cumulative impact of 2000 students. The spread of this idea has been easy to justify. As a former teacher, Imran knows what metrics Chicago public high schools are responsible for. “If you can get to the same metrics our schools and their administrators are measured against -- enhancing graduation rates and post-secondary outcomes—to increase by doing Embarc’s intervention, then we are pulling a new lever [of experiential learning] to get to better outcomes and prove the huge value in experietial learning.”
In this way, Imran has been effective in challenging the “old guard” that maintains that learning time is already limited, American students are falling behind, and that more testing needs to be administered. By showing that high quality experiences can move the same metrics better than traditional interventions, Imran has been able to gain tremendous traction.

For example, a sophomore with 2.0 GPA in the city of Chicago has a 71% chance of graduating high school, while a sophomore who goes through Embarc’s programming has a 96% chance of graduation, compared to students of similar economic backgrounds. That amounts to a 20% increase in high school graduation compared to other schools in the city of Chicago. Other metrics of success include 93% college enrollment and 97% post-secondary success (defined as starting a career, going to college, or joining the military).

Imran also notes that the partner organizations learn as much from these experiences as the youth do. He shares that the adults’ increase their empathy for the structural barriers that prevent these youth from succeeding, including those barriers the adults are complicit in building. “Look at race relations in our country, look at the growing disparity between our wealthy and our poor, look at the increasing isolation that is being documented. Connecting our schools and our students with the world around them and getting people to share…will have a profound effect not just on our kids’ lives, but on our collective social fabric,” Imran says. Embarc turns otherwise disengaged individuals into advocates for our youth as it comes to the city’s policy and infrastructure.

Just as Imran is committed to offering quality, rigorous programming for every student who moves through Embarc, he is also strategically sowing the seeds to prove the significance of experiential development and take this work more widely to educators across the country. As he strategizes to move into new cities, Imran plans for passionate educators in those cities to adopt Embarc’s methodologies around high quality developmental experiences. These educators will then incorporate it into their respective courses, ensuring the scaling process is done in a grassroots way. Because these teachers know best how to navigate their institutions, they will be best positioned to move experiential development forward in their contexts.

Imran is currently working to refine the methodology of Embarc’s developmental Experiences and create an experiential model that he can share with educational partners who are looking to scale this work. Embarc is receiving further attention due to a University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study from June 2015, the first time that research from neuroscience, education theory and psychology, has confirmed developmental experiences as critical to young adult success. These researchers cited Embarc as one of the best examples of integrating developmental experiences into the educational system, positioning Imran’s organization as a leader in the field. Imran is also building the case for Embarc by demonstrating the economic success of his program compared to other interventions. He partnered with Bain & Co. to understand the economic impact of Embarc’s work, calculating that for every dollar invested in Embarc, the program returns $7 to the economy, and has generated $ million in social saving to date.

The Person

Imran Khan is the son of immigrants who migrated to the United States from India. “My family's story is one of identity struggles, evictions, food stamps, successes, and failures,” he says. Imran’s working class family experienced significant economic hardship living in the United States, and enrolled their children in Chicago Public schools. While in school, Imran experienced some of the violence that is common in high schools like Harper, especially for his identifying with Indian culture. Imran attended four different schools during high school, including one year at a military school in India.

With little guidance from his parents or from the school system, Imran was on his own in navigating his future paths, including the college admissions process. He would attend the University of Illinois because it was close by. There, he studied business. He was known to write up long business plans detailing his ideas for entrepreneurial ventures – which he thought of as “financial insurance plans for my family” – from joint café-community centers to organic pizza shops.

Imran decided to change his major from business to English and education, realizing his interest in and sharp mind for critical thinking. The financial repercussions of switching from a business to an education major were high – when he told his father of this move, his father warned him that he would probably remain poor for a large part of his life.

After graduation, Imran applied to teach at Harper High School, known as the most dangerous high school in America. With the high rates of turnover at the school, he became head of the English department within two years for his commitment to the students. He came to his idea of bridging the city and the classroom through his observations interacting with students at Harper:

"When I decided to become a teacher, I had the idea that because I grew up as a minority, with financial struggles, and a product of CPS, I would be able to connect. Once I started working as a teacher at Harper High School, I realized that the challenges were so much more complex than I imagined. I began to realize what the cycles of poverty looks like in the lives of people that live it. It manifested as a deep disconnect from the ideas of what success could be, the many pathways to achieve it, and the actions it took to attain it. It manifested itself as gang brawls, gunfights, death, and dropout. This was about isolation and a lack of access to models and pathways to succeed. We were pouring so many resources into our schools to get our students to achieve. We had reading strategies, math strategies, test prep, but we were doing nothing to address the pervasive and destructive forces of isolation."

It proved difficult to convince the administration to allow him to tackle the isolation he noted. Though it was not easy to receive permission to take students out of the school, Imran persevered. Soon enough, his fellow teachers began to comment on the stark differences in the behavior of those students who were going through Imran’s journeys: in terms of attendance, grades, homework and overall investment. These results led Imran to write up “the most important business plan of [his] life” – the plan for Embarc.

Imran would continue to teach in Chicago Public schools for three years before moving into running – and growing - Embarc as a full-time career, using his influence inside the system to create great strides in expanding Embarc as a new scalable educational methodology.