Mark Hecker's Reach Incorporated is betting that the best way to reach young minds, is with other young minds. His teachers train, and pay, struggling high schoolers to tutor elementary school students in their community, and are seeing remarkable results.
“When you go intentionally toward the most difficult work, sometimes the losses pile up. But, the kids will never let me quit.”
"When people hear about the mission of Reach Incorporated, I often see raised eyebrows. 'Wait…' they say, as they collect their thoughts. 'So, you hire and train the kids that don’t do well in school?' Yes, I say calmly. 'And, you have those kids tutor younger children who need help reading?' Yes, I say again. At that point, the conversation can go a number of directions. Many people know well Ben Franklin’s familiar adage: 'Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.' They see that forcing someone to teach often guarantees comprehension of content. On the other hand, I’ve heard, 'You let the illiterate thugs teach?'"
Mark Hecker's dual background in education and social work have lead to this unusual, and unusually successful, Washington, DC after-school program called Reach Incorporated. "From Education, we know that students only improve when given the opportunity to practice at their grade level, Mark muses. "Social Work informs us that, as students age, motivation and engagement play an increasingly important role. We’re left with a question: How can we provide high school students with access to elementary school content in a way that’s both engaging and motivating."
The answer is a program which matches struggling high school students as tutors to elementary schoolers. He explains, "Currently, 85% of kids read below grade level when they enter 9th grade. Little more than half of minority students in the city finish high school. I want to see significant improvement in both areas. I’d like the drop out rate and the below-grade-reading rate to be in the single digits… Our high school students practice reading aloud, build their vocabulary, and develop comprehension skills. But, they also become role models and real assets to the community. We build leaders, and, never feeling like the recipients of remedial support, they become readers too." In the past three years, not a single student has dropped out.
"Discussions about contemporary education tend to revolve around words like proficiency and achievement. I know that the realities involve words like oppression and injustice. For that reason, I think the battle for educational equity will extend far beyond my lifetime." A particularly daunting forecast.
"But," Mark quickly counters, "the kids will never let me quit. When I’m at my lowest, Tamya begs to show me how well she’s doing. Zarita smiles as three elementary school students beg to work with her each day. Sean tells me to go away when I offer support, because he’s confident enough to handle behavioral challenges on his own. Binetou tells me that she offered to work on weekends to avoid shifts that would interfere with tutoring. Ronnie shows up to tutoring on a day when he was home sick from school. Qur-An, who was a non-reader when we met her, starts reading her first words as Chaya looks on smiling. When they appear, I drink in the energy that comes from these moments. Seeing this light, this confidence, emerging from our kids makes it impossible to walk away."