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Meet Slam the Gap.

Using design-thinking principles to develop an award-winning initiative that combats the achievement gap in PG County.

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As part of an innovation and social change course at the University of Maryland, my group set out with the mission to empower families and promote leadership in children to ultimately mitigate the effects of poverty on the achievement gap.

Slam the Gap focuses on narrowing the achievement gap in PG County, Maryland by teaching vocabulary through slam poetry, hip-hop, and artistic/musical expression


The program focuses on teaching sight words, which are high frequency words that must be memorized by students, and are pushed on standardized tests.

My role: As a co-founder and the Creative Director, I combined my background in psychology, human development, and cultural studies with art/design to plan lessons, develop our approach/method, and produce all digital + print materials. 

The Problem


In order to best align our intentions, we had to understand the context in which we were working in.

Firstly--what is the achievement gap? 


The achievement gap refers to the disparities in academic performance between students stemming from structural inequities that exist, for example, across race, gender and class.


Negative effects of the achievement gap show up in grades, standardized tests, course selection, dropout rates, and employee rates post graduation.

Students in Prince George’s County who are negatively affected by the achievement gap need a way to feel empowered, despite lack of resources and environmental influences that may be detrimental to their educational development.

Subtle barriers to minority students' success often relate to teachers' negative attitudes, parents' reluctance to aggressively advocate for their children, and peer pressure to be popular that undermines academic achievement (Johnston & Roberts, 2000).

According to the Department of Education, Latino students on average lag roughly two grade levels behind white students in reading and math exams at a national level.


The achievement gap remains as wide as ever with only 47 percent of African Americans and Latino students performing at a proficient level in English (Black, Ford, and Polluck, 2012).

The Research

We began our brainstorming sessions with our opportunity statement that synthesized both the problem at hand and our intentions. 

We explored ideas from fundraising to app development and beyond, and built upon each idea to reframe how our approach could include more of our research.

Our brainstorming success came from listening to one another, respecting each idea, and feeling free creatively to voice our own opinions/ideas.

We identified some key players on the national, state, and local levels to learn from the successes (and failures) of previous initiatives

  • No Child Left Behind 2001, relatively unsuccessful

    • “An act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind”

  • Every Student Succeeds Act 2015 - Equal Opportunity for students

    • Standardized testing, emphasis on state accountability

  • Academic Achievement Programs

  • Broadband Adoption  

    • Prince George’s County Broadband Project

    • Internet Essentials

  • School lunch programs

    • PG County offers free and reduced priced lunches

    • Capital Area Food Bank - Family Market, Weekend Bags


Interviews with academic advisors, administrators, and teachers in PG County grounded our efforts in data and helped maintain our sense of perspective + purpose.

Stakeholder Interview Highlights:

  • Early exposure=greater student success

  • If we don't address discrimination we are stripping other students from making a difference in our society

  • The issue lies in the ways that resources are allocated and the parental values

  • Education is not a business


  • PG County is populated by a spectrum of minorities from various countries speaking various languages

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| Ways the achievement gap can narrow

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| Family Stress Model of Economic Hardship and Socialization

Why does it matter?

  • Relying on test scores causes lower-scoring groups to be underrepresented.

  • Reducing the achievement gap is the only way to increase the chances that members of minorities can get ahead in society via selective institutions

  • Equal opportunities - education, professions, socio-economic status

We found that our connections led to other opportunities and individuals who helped us build a network of mutual support.

With this foundation, we would build a dynamic program that aligns our intentions with that of our partners to advance the efforts of all involved.

The Power of Privilege

Key Takeaways:

  • We are nothing without our failures (always adopt an iterative mindset)


  • Sharing privilege in one small act can have transformative effects 


  • Sometimes we need to shift our frame of mind from what privilege we don't have to what we do have--privilege is not "have or not have" (identify the bright spots)

Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

Key Takeaways:

  • Audience analyses and empathy interviews are essential in defining a problem

  • If people do not wish to be helped, leave them alone--our intentions to save may ultimately be damaging and perpetuate 

  • Listen to what the people affected and involved need, be a facilitator of existing intentions from community leaders (do not come in with a planned approach, or at least be ready to change it)

The Solution

Slam the Gap embraces the idea that language is empowerment and works to build vocabulary in a culturally relevant context--hip-hop, music, and art--at Templeton Elementary School in PG County, Maryland.

We created an after-school workshop for 1st grade students, as it is during this time that parents are most involved with the students’ education. Studies have shown that parental involvement is an important aspect of a child’s development and sense of self, which led our group to believe that parental involvement will be important in determining the effectiveness our program and a means of measurement.


We use rap and poetry to help elementary students build their vocabularies. The number of words known is directly linked to many outcomes later in their lives, such as college trajectory, their confidence, and their ability to express themselves, ultimately addressing important variables that affect the achievement gap.

With our understanding of the local challenges that have reshaped the problem at hand (e.g., limited English proficiency and lack of parental participation), we decided to focus on teaching sight words--a collection of words that a child must learn to recognize without sounding out the letters.

These words are especially tested on 1st grade standardized tests.


Slam the Gap was voted a class favorite and won 1st place ($1000) at the University of Maryland's Do Good Class Challenge.


Team Member Strengths + Meyers-Briggs:

We used the strength of our team members to find and establish partnerships within academic institutions:​​


Mya (Fundraising/Events Chair, ESFP) 

  • Notable background working with children

Liana (Creative Director, ENFP)

  • Interdisciplinary creative background/experience with slam poetry

Alexandra (Secretary/Editor of Class Assignments, ENFJ)

  • Excellent organization and writing skills

Ada (Head of Logistics/Templeton Liaison, ENTJ)

  • Excellent interpersonal/logistic skills

Listen to Slam the Gap in action!

Action Plan:


Meet with 20 students twice a week for a total of 10 sessions (including a "final slam" event).


  1. Expanding the vocabulary of students by involving them in activities that will facilitate interaction to get them out of their comfort zones.

  1. Help develop a sense of identity through verbal expression, encourage innovation and creativity within the classroom through the incorporation of culturally relevant music and poetry.


Success criteria:


Level of success was be determined through an initial vocabulary assessment, and followed up with the same assessment at the at the end of the program. Participation in the Final Slam would demonstrate important skills learned throughout the workshop and would act as an opportunity for measurement.

Each month we completed a status report that highlighted our most recent accomplishments, our short-term goals, and our long-term goals.

If any problem arose, we quickly and realistically drew up a resolution plan.


United by one passion and facilitated by our varied skillsets, our group placed 1st at the Do Good Class Challenge.

The Challenges and Learnings

Tension provides opportunity to create a more drastic change--resist and the problem will persist. 

In order to translate intention to action, we needed to continuously reflect on our work and gauge the impact of our work. With this awareness, we remained flexible and utilized our lesson plans as opportunities to test behavior changes. People are unpredictable, especially children, and we shifted our methods throughout the process to better meet the needs of our stakeholders.

As we carried out this venture during a university semester, each of our schedules was drastically different. Although we needed to change how we communicated, what remained constant was our need to stay on the same page to achieve our goals. 

The small moments will make all of the work worth it. Whether it's a hug from the kids, dancing around the classroom, or meeting appreciative parents, we felt that these results were the most impacting and fueled our work further. Measuring success can form from both visible and invisible results--not everything will be tangible, but an open, positive mindset can shift how we view success.

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