During his three-year tenure as a teacher at Kashmere High School, ProUnitas Founder Adeeb Barqawi noticed first-hand how many capable students brought the weight of other non-academic barriers such as hunger and mental health to school with them. Even while carrying the burden of these challenges on a daily basis, the students held as many aspirations as other students. Adeeb realized his students were missing or had a weak “social safety net,” a term he created to describe the necessary supports a child receives from society in addition to what parents and schools give them. Teaching, therefore, was inextricably intertwined with the social services sector in filling the non-academic gaps that students bring into the classroom. At that time, there was no coordinated system or directions for teachers to seek support from non-academic services for students who needed them the most. When reaching out to counselors and social workers, Adeeb found that they, too, were stretched thin and overwhelmed with the fractured nature of the social services industry and burnt out navigating the system for their sizeable caseloads.
Therefore, in 2014, Adeeb started ProUnitas by looking at the opportunity gap that existed between students of means and students in high-poverty, high minority neighborhoods, particularly the ones at Kashmere High School, the lowest performing school in Texas. There was an urgent need to create a system that would make it easier for schools to structure how students received supports for non-academic barriers without adding to the plate of a teacher while concurrently empowering the social worker or counselor with the tools necessary to equitably identify, track, and evaluate the students as they were connected to services. No longer was it contingent on a charismatic “superhero” teacher to connect students to services and the extraordinary principal to ensure that services existed on campuses. Even more catastrophic was the loss of institutional memory once these individuals left the school because of burnout or promotion, among other reasons.
ProUnitas has experienced significant growth in the last two years, with expansion to the entire Kashmere feeder pattern, a total of six schools. We are in four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. This allows us to improve student outcomes by proactively intervening throughout a student’s K-12 academic lifetime rather than during one singular point in time or in sporadic, inconsistent checkpoints. Our work in Kashmere, one of the most impoverished communities in Texas, helped us create an innovative and scalable solution that allows schools to be hyper-responsive to student needs, establishes partnerships with service providers to leverage existing resources, creates opportunities for those same providers to collaborate for collective impact, and brings school and community leaders together to align on issues facing their schools.