OAKLAND, CALIF. - In the United States, the children of refugees often grow up disadvantaged as their parents struggle to adapt to a new life and support a family. That is Xiao Hoa Michelle Ching’s story.
Ching's parents were refugees from Laos. They brought their two daughters to the U.S. Ching, the third and youngest child, is the only one in her family born in the United States. Surviving in America was not easy for her parents, she said.
“They came here and they really struggled. They really, to this day, have not a lot of things - no assets, no material goods to boast about, to say 'we created wealth or we established ourselves,'" Ching said.
Growing up, Ching, her two sisters and parents moved several times to different U.S. cities. She remembered how rough one of her schools was.
“The environment felt like a prison. There were bars over every single window. Teachers often wouldn’t show up," she said.
Ching said she wanted to make a difference, so she chose to teach at an urban school. There, she saw that the challenges many teachers faced kept students from getting the most out of their education.
“A lot of schools still operate using a factory model where it’s one lesson for the whole class even though every single student is different,” she said.
“Students in my classroom are reading anywhere from a kindergarten level to a fifth-grade level," fourth-grade teacher Chasmin Moses said. "It’s so frustrating to have to try to be the best teacher that you can for all these students reading at different levels.
"My first year of teaching, I didn’t know what to do," said Moses, who works in Oakland where the majority of the students are either black or Latino and come from low-income homes.
“The classes that I took becoming a teacher did not properly prepare me to teach in this environment, and the environment I’m teaching in requires individualized teaching to 30 students,” Moses said.
Ching’s solution is a free mobile application that serves as a coach or personal assistant for teachers as they work with students who are learning to read.
With plenty of ideas but no technical background, Ching partnered with tech experts from Silicon Valley to create the app called Literator. The app provides individualized guidance for students, based on their ability to read, and shows teachers each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
“The teacher will get prompts and guides to be able to ask questions and support that student and set goals in that moment so they [the students] can move up grade levels,” Ching explained.
Ching quit her teaching job to work on the company full time, but trying to start a company in Silicon Valley has not been easy, nor has raising money with her background.
“The nature of Silicon Valley is very white and male, and most of them go to Stanford or Harvard. I have none of those things," she explained. "I didn’t go to an Ivy [League school] and I wasn’t born a white male, so it actually makes it really hard for me to make those kinds of connections.
"The culture of those VC, the venture capitalists, and the people they talk to, it’s a club,” said Ching who has been funding her startup through grants so far.
Drive to succeed
Literator launched less than a year ago, and Ching said the app is being used by 900 teachers in eight countries. Seeing the growth it has had in the past year motivates her, she said.
Moses, the fourth-grade teacher, is also impressed with the app. “My kids last year improved the most out of the school in regards to literacy and math."
Another factor that drives Ching is her parents.
“They’ve worked so hard for us. All we want to do is make sure that they can live easier lives and enjoy our success and so there’s no time to waste in that way." she said. “Everything I do, I know that in the back of my mind I’m thinking, 'Is this making my dad really proud of me?'”
Ching said she wants her parents to know the struggles they've had as refugees have been worth it. They have made it possible for their daughter to achieve the American dream, Ching said, and that gives her great joy.