A professor once told me a parable about chess. “After we play, where do the king and the pawn end up?” he asked. And I was like, “Well, they both end up in the box.” And he said, “That’s exactly right. We’re all heading there. So maybe what truly matters is what mark you leave on the world.”
I was set on going to medical school, but he introduced me to something called life design. You stop asking yourself what you want to become and instead ask what problem makes you curious. What problem do you want to solve? I was drawn to systems. I’m curious about solving root causes of problems. I signed up for Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits and trains recent college graduates to serve as teachers in poor public schools. I remember calling my family, and they were like, teach for who? What are you talking about?
Houston was near the bottom of my list of preferred cities. I didn’t really know where it was, to be honest. I was assigned to Kashmere High School, in the Trinity Gardens neighborhood, to teach eleventh- and twelfth-grade physics. It was one of the lowest-performing high schools in the state of Texas. Most of my kids were Black. Now there are more Hispanics, but when I first started, it was around 80 percent African American.
My colleagues noted how well-behaved my kids were. So I asked one of my students about this. His name was Cesar, and he said, “To be honest, Mr. B, they don’t know where the f— you’re from. You’re not Black. You’re Latino. Maybe Arab.” I am Arab and I had a thicker accent then, so there was a mystery, maybe fear. “Who is he? Is he with the FBI?” I think they really thought I was sent from the federal government.
I understood inequity in theory, but I was mostly oblivious when I first arrived. All I saw was: This kid is hungry. What do we do? Their needs varied by day. There is food at the school, but maybe they missed breakfast because of transportation issues. Mental health issues were common. There was need for additional tutoring and enrichment activities. Some of them lacked internet at home. Some needed financial assistance. Some needed help with their prom activities. Some were misbehaving due to many other root causes, such as trauma. I didn’t lower my academic expectations because a child wasn’t feeling well. However, you have to take these factors into consideration.
One day there was this one student, and I just could not get her attention. Her head was down. There was the usual tired kid who didn’t sleep at night because they were taking care of their siblings or whatever. But I could tell there was something more going on.
I had built a good relationship with her. She’d shared with me her aspirations, her interest in physics, her interest in going to college. When it was time for the class to do an individual activity, I leaned down and said, “What’s going on?” And she said, “My mom was murdered last night. I only came to school to eat.”
It’s an extreme story, but I bet you every teacher in our public schools has a story like this. And I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I tried to find resources to help with her trauma, but it was just so disorganized. I contacted the counselor. By the time we found resources, the student I was trying to help had stopped coming to class. She fell through the cracks. I don’t know what happened to her.
That was the tipping point—I had to do something. Kids would walk in hungry. I’d call and discover the food bank has a program. Kids needed a computer. There is Compudopt, a nonprofit that provides free computers to needy Texas students. As time went by, I would coordinate more services for my students. I also saw my students’ scores go up, and my classroom environment was better. At one point we outperformed every physics classroom in the entire district.
I did some research and found there were more than 20,000 nonprofits in Houston. There was a nonprofit for almost every single need. But there was no clear way to access them. Teachers and counselors are overwhelmed. They don’t know these resources exist, and they haven’t been systematized. They were not coordinated or integrated in any way. Even within a school, the counselor was not necessarily communicating effectively with the teachers, who were not communicating effectively with the nurse.
I started to realize that maybe the problem I’m obsessed with is that we’ve become program rich and systems poor. I convinced my principal my third year to let me teach four periods of physics and spend the other four coordinating resources for kids across our campus. And the latter by itself was a full-time job. I created a spreadsheet, and I quickly realized it was getting damned complex. That’s when I started thinking that some sort of technology was needed. And I wanted to create it.
I solicited input from students and various community leaders, and we came up with four distinct steps. First, how do you quickly identify kids who need help? Second, once you’ve received a request, what do you do with it, and how do you create recurring check-ins? Third, if schools can’t handle the problem, how can you connect with community-based organizations? What are your processes for referring kids to the food bank or to health clinics, and how do you keep track of these services? And then fourth: we had to have a way to measure if kids were improving and to ensure continuity of care.
I took a leap of faith and launched a 501(c)(3) called ProUnitas. I left after my third year in the classroom with this idea that we would create coordinated systems of support. I had $25,000 in funding and my little bit of savings, and by the following year we had $1 million. We coded a software, called Purple, that generates a color for every kid on campus—red, yellow, green—based on very finite metrics like attendance.
Grant applications would ask, “What’s your program?” I’m like, “It’s not a program.” It’s coordinating so the programs can actually reach the right kids. It’s the same thing with our welfare system, where many of the kids are receiving resources, but the right kids aren’t getting the right resources. We’re not saying that schools should be service providers for everything—they’re just wonderful service sites. Poverty knocks on the doors of schools.
We started with Key Middle School and Kashmere. We grew the model to six schools. Then HISD called and said it wanted to do this districtwide. We’re in 430 schools across Texas.
We build a unique software program for every school district. We help them launch it, and then we work with them as an ongoing partner in creating data visualizations, doing analysis, breaking down students into various demographics—which ones are receiving services, which ones are not. Do you have a bullying problem there? Do you have a threat-assessment problem? How can you get ahead of it?
This has been shown to increase attendance and decrease behavior infractions. It affects how districts make decisions when it comes to resource allocation. Counselors feel like they’re able to be more strategic. Some districts have built new health care clinics as a result of demand data. Some have increased the number of counselors and social workers on campus. Some have passed new policies around student support.
Houston ISD now has immediate access to the needs of all students. We can track student referrals and look at trends. Nearly 90,000 requests for support, from basic needs to mental health services, have come in so far this calendar year. Schools can see for what—trauma, grief, anger, students losing parents. It all boils down to specific students, and schools can see what each kid is receiving. Then you can see whether resource allocations for each school match demand. Districts can start to truly dig deep using tangible data.
We believe this should be a Texas-wide system. Everybody is talking about mental health support systems and documentation, especially after Uvalde. How do you support kids and create continuity of care? You have a system so that you can start to say, “I need more resources for this. I need less resources for that.” You increase access to mental health, you increase attendance.
And we can build even more integrated systems. Standardized test scores are clearly a measure of poverty—higher poverty rates consistently correlate with lower test scores. If we truly care about our kids, why shouldn’t everyone be measured according to student achievement? Why shouldn’t the health department and the agriculture department and police departments all have educational outcomes be a measure of their success and funding?
Schools are bearing all the responsibility for the trajectory of the child. What if departments were mandated by law to come together and set a metric, one that they use to measure themselves and one that is shared? The health department can look at vaccines and well-being. The agriculture department can look at hunger rates. Why can’t public works be measured according to sidewalks and parks and safe passage to schools? I’m yearning for people to feel the pressure.
By the time I die one day, that is what I hope to have implemented: a common metric around our kids so that we’re all held accountable in some sort of way. If you want to donate, visit the ProUnitas website.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Lots of Help Is Available for At-Risk Students, but Few Know How to Get It .” Subscribe today.