Teach for America Alum Empowers Students to Dream Big
Mar 23, 2016
Teach for America alum and ProUnitas, Inc. founder Adeeb Barqawi uses what he learned in the classroom to help local agencies connect the dots for Houston’s neediest children.
Aspiring doctor turns to education
“My parents taught me that life is all about how you’re remembered when you’re gone - be inclusive, and go above and beyond for others,” said Adeeb Barqawi, a Teach for America (TFA) alum and the founder and CEO of ProUnitas, Inc.
Barqawi was on track to start medical school and become a doctor when he decided to switch gears completely and apply for TFA, an organization rooted in domestic education reform. Shell has partnered with TFA since 1992, and our support helps fund the placement of hundreds of math and science teachers across Houston.
“My dad would always ask me, if money was no object, what would you have done? Giving is never a lost investment.”
Barqawi was born in Washington, D.C., spent part of his life in Kuwait and started college at Virginia Commonwealth University at age 16 – a full 1-2 years before most U.S. students. He worked at Pfizer in New York on vaccine development before pursuing a graduate degree in physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University.
Experience at Kashmere High School changes teacher’s life
Following graduation from Georgetown, he took a step back and began to re-evaluate his career path. His brother – who always served as his role model – shared his experiences teaching at a low-income school in Arkansas. Barqawi decided to take a leap of faith and follow in his footsteps.
At the age of 21, Barqawi joined TFA as an 11th and 12th grade physics and environmental science teacher at Kashmere High School in the Karshmere Gardens area of northeast Houston, an impoverished neighborhood known for high unemployment, high infant mortality rates, high teacher and principal turnover in schools, and food deserts that hindered the community’s health challenges.
The experience at Kashmere High School opened his eyes and changed his life forever.
“The students I taught walked into my classroom with the highest aspirations, and their dreams ranged from becoming a doctor, to a musician to an astronaut,” he said.
“But barriers like hunger and unstable housing brought them back to reality and prevented them from achieving their dreams.”
TFA aims to help tackle urban education crisis
The numbers don’t lie. The United States has more than 16 million children living in poverty. One in three won’t graduate from high school – and of those who do, only 18 percent will enter a four-year college. Ultimately, only 9 percent will receive a four-year degree by the age of 25.
TFA’s mission focuses on enlisting, developing and mobilizing as many as possible of the nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity. TFA, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary later this month, emphasizes that together we can solve the achievement gap through selective recruitment and training of top college graduates with excellent critical thinking, organizational, interpersonal and leadership abilities.
These characteristics prove most effective in helping students of all backgrounds achieve dramatic growth – not just those from upper class families.
Despite obstacles, students demonstrate incredible resilience
Barqawi said he quickly came to the realization that many of his kids arrived each day very hungry, many suffered from untreated mental illness and severe medical needs, several didn’t have sufficient clothing, etc. He knew he couldn’t tackle any of these challenges alone.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to education – it takes a community, and the community must sit at the table during the decision-making process,” he said.
“I sought to truly understand the system and why it had failed my students.”
Despite the daily struggle that many of his students faced simply to arrive at school, Barqawi was shocked by the amount of resilience they exhibited.
He made a commitment to understanding his students and where they came from – each with their own unique backgrounds, challenges and strengths. When students failed to attend school, he didn’t let them off the hook. He showed up at key events in their lives and tried to embed himself in the local community. Through it all, he set high expectations and watched his students consistently step up to the plate.
Barqawi leverages community and industry partners - including Shell - to bring learning to life
Combined with his commitment to the lifelong success of his students – and an understanding of the barriers they faced every day that were often beyond their control – Barqawi invited numerous community and industry partners into his classroom to bring learning to life.
Partners included Microsoft, Shell Oil Co., university professors, law enforcement officers, healthcare, finance and legal professionals, workforce development specialists, leaders of mentoring programs, college counselors, and more. As a result of these partnerships, students gained valuable exposure to potential careers.
Every other month, Shell sent numerous employees to Barqawi’s classroom to talk about careers in the energy industry, lead tours of local area refineries and the corporate headquarters, discuss the ABCs of the company’s business goals and mission and kick off a conversation about the implications of renewable energy.
Students enjoyed hearing about how many Shell staff had grown their careers from the bottom up.
“They saw real life examples of people who started at a very junior level and rose through the ranks. It was inspiring for the kids since many of them didn’t have much stability in their lives,” said Barqawi.
“All of the Shell staff emphasized that perfection simply isn’t possible. The topic of learning from your mistakes, earning trust from colleagues and working as a collaborative team really struck a chord.”
Hard work pays off
Barqawi said it would have been impossible to positively influence his students without the help and insight of others. He wanted his students to receive quality info from the source, which middle and upper class kids often have at their fingertips.
His hard work paid off, and Barqawi received a mayoral proclamation in 2014 that declared April 15 ‘Kashmere Junior and Senior Day’ in Houston. Barqawi’s 11th and 12th grade students outperformed 37 other high schools and received the highest passage rate on the physics benchmark exam in the Houston Independent School District (ISD) that year. More than 85 percent of his students passed at the 70th-percentile mastery level.
ProUnitas connects the dots for students
Through his teaching, Barqawi realized that his students’ ability to learn was not due to their lack of motivation – it was a lack of essential services at the school and community level.
After three years with TFA, Barqawi decided that his heart was no longer tied to becoming a doctor – so he built ProUnitas, an organization that brings various nonprofits and agencies together and connects them with kids who desperately need support but often don’t have the capacity to seek it out themselves.
“Poverty is the biggest challenge for improving our urban education system – and there’s no band-aid for that…it’s extremely complex and multi-faceted, and many things are very interdependent,” he said.
Poverty often leads to other issues that inhibit a student’s learning ability, such as lack of proper medical care and hunger.
"Most jobs require an ID, but to get an ID you need to have an original birth certificate and transportation, which most of these kids don’t have. We need to help kids connect the dots."
After only two years, ProUnitas now has seven employees and 35 agencies under its umbrella. The organization serves close to 300 of the lowest performing students in the Kashmere Gardens area.
“As a country, we have become program rich but system poor,” said Barqawi. “No single program can do it all since our kids come with various needs. It’s our responsibility to help them maximize their potential.”
Barqawi’s work at ProUnitas has created a system of coordinated access, and children can now see multiple experts. The organization brings support to the kids – not the other way around.
Education matters for everyone’s future
“Due to my work with TFA, I’ve learned to embrace impact and mutual gain. Living a life of purpose is not something you do by accident – it’s a choice. Switching gears from medical school was a complex decision for me. I turned down a six figure job with amazing benefits and good hours, but I have zero regrets.”
He paused for a second before adding, “Children are the next generation of leaders. To ignore education inequality is to disregard the long-term success of this country. What’s more important than our future?”
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