When he was a fellow at Harvard University, Lionel Sosa’s students asked him how it could be that their high-achieving Latino classmates could have friends and cousins back home on welfare or in jail.

“By the end of the semester the answer was amazingly simple: expectations,” Sosa said.

Often, he added, those bright, shining examples of success can trace their path back to a turning point when someone told them they were smart, capable, and obligated to make good on that.

“Someone expected that individual to do great things. Usually it was a 5th grade teacher,” Sosa said.

Realizing that positive messaging was a critical element of these success stories, the marketing executive in Sosa had an idea. How do you use the principles of marketing to make college a household value? He created Yes! Our Kids Can, a digital education system that tackles one of the most pernicious hurdles facing Latino youth growing up in poverty: a culture of low expectations.

Now, with a $65,500 grant from the John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation, the app-based tool will work toward a spring semester debut in Somerset Independent School District.

Sosa worked with John Andrade, now president of Yes! Our Kids Can, to develop the app-based tool that teachers and families can access on smartphones and tablets to bring aspirational songs, puzzles, and flashcards to children starting their first day of school.

Lionel Sosa (l) and John Andrade.
Lionel Sosa (left) and John Andrade. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

Often, Andrade pointed out, the success stories are these lofty tales of a lucky kid being noticed by a single teacher. The whole phenomenon is treated like a rare, one in a million fairytale.

“Why can’t we make that the standard?” Andrade asked.

Every student, by the time they are in 5th grade should have heard that they are capable of achieving their goals through hard work and persistence.

While it is good to hear this at school, the most powerful influence is a family culture. More and more people are realizing that college is a positive thing in general, Andrade said, they just don’t realize that it could be a reality for anyone in their family.

Instead, many families encourage their children to think about the probable, practical course their life will follow. They are not being cruel – in fact, it’s just the opposite.

“Families try to manage kids’ expectations,” Andrade said. 

Many times, Sosa said, children step into the adult pressures of their households when they transition into adulthood. They are expected to contribute financially, which means getting whichever job is available right then and there.

“The poorer a family is, the less likely they are to think about going to college,” Sosa said.

Sosa doesn’t want to change the family first values of his Latino culture. He wants to help families understand the real value of making college part of their story.

Sosa sees this difference in his own family.

With only a high school diploma, Sosa’s prospects looked to be on par with his family and community. He was working a minimum wage job and coming home exhausted. Before long, he was married with four kids. When he and his first wife divorced, she remarried another man without a college degree. Sosa stepped back, and let his children’s step-father fill the role of father and example.

When he married his wife Kathy, their blended family included four new children, two from his second marriage to Diane Sosa and two from her first marriage. Kathy was a college graduate, and suddenly higher education became part of Sosa’s family culture.

While the four children from his first marriage are just as hard-working, honest, and good-hearted as the four he raised with Kathy, Sosa says they have had a much harder time. None went to college, and instead followed the path Sosa himself had started on.

“They have struggled,” Sosa professed.

The children he raised with Kathy followed their passions, and it took them to places like Yale, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and a successful music career. Their hard work has paid them back not only financially, but in jobs they genuinely enjoy.

Christina Sosa Noriega gives much credit her mother Diane, who was a college graduate and a teacher. Diane made strategic moves to ensure her kids would have the best education available.

One parent who had lived the value of a college education created that culture in their home.

Sosa wants parents to understand that if they can convince their kids to go to college, they will be “pivoting the legacy” of their family.

“Once a child goes to college, their kids are almost certain to go to college,” he said.

Kids who go to college are likely to have more stable financial lives, and, thus, are more likely to experience the myriad health and social benefits of financial stability. Those kids will be able to contribute far more to their family’s stability than the young adults living paycheck to paycheck, Sosa said.

“Going to work to help the family doesn’t help the family. We want to dispel that myth,” Andrade said.

Yes! Our Kids Can includes digital content for home and the classroom. They designed the curriculum with a former school teacher and aligned it with the TEKS.

“She is making sure we are being as helpful to the teachers as possible,” Sosa said.

More than anything, teachers were asking for help with parent engagement. As they tried to change the culture of low expectations, they needed parents to promote it at home as well.

This was where the democratizing influence of the internet proved valuable.

Low income families “over-index” in smart phone usage, Andrade said, meaning they use smart phones more than you would expect.

This allows Yes! Our Kids Can to go into homes, rather than insisting that all parental support happen at the school.

Some parents are intimidated by school environments, and are likely to be reserved or even defensive. Sosa and Andrade want to see more positive messaging and less “finger wagging.” Instead of parent-teacher nights, where parents sit in student desks and listen to a laundry list of things they and their kids need to do better, Yes! Our Kids Can will help the school host a “See Your Child’s Future” event where students talk about their dreams and aspirations.

The app also sends notifications to parents. At particular points in the day, such as right before school, it reminds them to encourage their students, to ask them important questions, and to bring up aspirational topics.

Money is clearly the hook to get kids interested in higher education. Whenever Sosa and Andrade show students a chart that depicts the hourly rate of jobs available to college graduates, kids express disbelief that there are jobs that pay $40 and $50 per hour.

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Ultimately, Sosa said, they hope their aspirations go beyond high hourly rates, or even six-figure salaries. As they raise expectations, Yes! Our Kids Can aims to create informed taxpayers, voters, and community leaders who can in turn widen pathways for others.

It’s this potential for cultural impact that has kept Andrade and Sosa toiling away at what looked like their own impossible dream.

For two and a half years, Andrade and Sosa have been developing the program using their own time and resources. Sosa estimates they have invested at least $250,000 in time and development costs. He even took out a mortgage on his house. Andrade spent numerous hours developing and reworking the app and the website.

“We put our heart into this,” Andrade said.

The Santikos Foundation grant came at just the right moment. Having reached the end of their personal funds, Sosa and Andrade were short on money for more focus groups. With the Santikos grant, they will be able to refine the system to the point that it is ready for a pilot the program with 2nd and 3rd graders at Somerset Elementary School in March 2017. 

They will continue to take feedback from students, parents, and teachers while they look for more partners to help bring the app to market. Yes! Our Kids Can will remain a nonprofit, but Sosa’s marketing background reminds him that the more a message is repeated – the more ubiquitous the songs, slogans, and lessons become – the more the culture will be shaped by these messages of achievement.

“Every kid in every school in America – That’s our goal,” Sosa said.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.