Mark Hecker pairs pupils and student tutors – with dramatic gains for both

At Reach Incorporated the tutors are only about six to eight years older – high school students who themselves have been struggling academically or socially.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Mark Hecker stands in front of students at Payne Elementary School in Washington, D.C., part of his student tutoring program.

In an otherwise ordinary District of Columbia classroom, something transformative is going on in the lives of young learners.

Gathered around small tables, groups of second- and third-graders have stayed after school for extra help to catch up with their peers in reading and writing.

What’s unusual is that the tutors are only about six to eight years older – high school students who themselves have been struggling academically or socially. And it seems to be working like a charm.

In one corner of the room, the task for third-graders Anthony and Dionté on this day late in the school year is to assemble short books, with stories and pictures of their own making. Anthony’s book is called “Andrew the Dragon Slayer.” Dionté’s is about a boy who wants to be a basketball player but has trouble being disciplined enough to make it to the practices.

Watching over them is Jaleel, a 10th-grader who provides a gentle nudge when needed. “What’s your picture going to be?” he asks as he points to a blank space on Anthony’s page.

The younger kids are learning to put one word after another. Jaleel says he’s learning about leadership, including “getting out of the shell of being quiet.” He patiently watches the boys, stepping up with guidance when needed but not doing any of the work for them.

The man who founded this program, Mark Hecker, says the idea is that by being paired together both the tutors and the students can discover potential they didn’t know they had – not just in literacy but in life.

Mr. Hecker says he knows full well that the growth won’t always happen quickly or smoothly – not when the participants are often confronting difficult circumstances in their lives that can include poverty, domestic violence, or drug abuse in their families. So the program, called Reach Incorporated, is rooted in a philosophy of unconditional love and support.

“Reading and tutoring becomes the vehicle through which we can provide that support,” which can ultimately change lives, Hecker says. “We all know that quote about it taking a village [to raise a child]. But there aren’t a lot of opportunities to create that village in some of our more challenging urban neighborhoods.”

So, for Hecker, one of the most important ways to measure Reach’s success is by the staff’s refusal to believe in failure. The tutoring is a paid job for those who do it, but tutors aren’t “fired” or kicked out of the program if they don’t do what’s being asked of them.

One boy, named Tre’Shawn, barely came at all during his first year. (At Reach’s request, this article uses first names only for the young people, for their privacy.) As Hecker sees it, Tre’Shawn “was just really nervous about being asked to read in front of people.”

Reach offered a nonjudgmental environment, and also the nudge of opportunity. Instead of the negative feelings that can accompany being in a remedial reading program, Tre’Shawn was being given a chance to make a difference in the life of an elementary school student.

Now, Hecker says, Tre’Shawn has warmed to the role of tutor and to Reach’s deeper meaning, saying “thank you for the family,” as he finished his second year with the program.

School administrators say they see reading skills on the rise, and more.

“We’ve been really happy with Reach,” says Maisha Riddlesprigger, the principal at Ketcham Elementary, the school where Jaleel tutors. Alongside the gains for her elementary students, “we’ve seen [the tutors] mature through the year.”

One of the secrets to the program’s success, the principal says, is simply that the young kids are excited to have a mentor who’s like an older brother or sister: In their eyes, “high-schoolers are a lot cooler than teachers or other adults.”

And the tutors “can talk to the kids on a more personal level,” Ms. Riddlesprigger adds. “They can say ‘I went to this elementary school,’ and ‘this is what you’re going to have to know’ in high school.’ ”

Not every student sees a surge of progress, but Hecker says it’s typical for the elementary students to grow their reading ability by about 1.5 grade levels per year, while the tutors themselves improve by about two grade levels per year.

For a high-schooler who works three years for Reach, that translates into moving from a fifth-grade reading level (as a ninth-grader) to being at his or her grade level by 11th grade.

“We just heard that one third-grader, who was reading at one to two words per minute, is now up to 40 words per minute,” says Chibundu Nnake, a Reach staffer who works at the Ketcham location.

Another benchmark: Reach reports that 90 percent of its tutors and alumni are on track to graduate from high school on time – much better than the overall average for Washington, D.C., high schools.

“All the kids involved in this program feel less alone in their struggle,” says Leslie Shipman, assistant director of the National Book Foundation, which recently selected Reach as the winning applicant for a $10,000 “Innovations in Reading” award.

“This program is somewhat unique, from my knowledge,” she says. “It’s not just the reading piece. When kids are working together ... there’s a whole gamut of lessons that are being learned.”

Reach also recently won some big new financial support – a three-year, $300,000 gift from The Norman R. Rales and Ruth Rales Foundation. The foundation’s president, Josh Rales, called Reach’s impact per dollar invested “as impressive as I have seen.”

That gift will help Reach keep growing. The program has gone from one pairing of an elementary school and a high school in 2010 to five pairs today – with 90 students and 90 tutors. By the fall of 2017, Hecker expects to have 250 student/tutor pairs in the program.

He’s thinking about possible growth strategies. (Will Reach expand beyond Washington? Will it license its curriculum?) But Hecker says he’s determined to put quality control ahead of expansion. The results don’t come just by putting students of different ages in the same room, he says. The climate of love and support created by Reach staff members such as Mr. Nnake is also crucial.

The tutors work with students on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays those tutors meet with Reach staff members, who guide and coach them on the curriculum.

Deja is one ninth-grader who’s been enjoying her job as a tutor. “I like kids,” she says, explaining how she helped one little girl learn the difference between long and short vowels. Although it’s harder for her to describe, she says the program is helping her, too: She’s learning “how to let stuff go” and “how to control myself, to stay focused.” Her academic work has improved. Those all are the beneficial side effects of the opportunity to put her love of children into practice.

The origins of Reach go back to Hecker’s own challenged childhood.

“I actually lost my father when I was a kid and didn’t handle that very well,” he says. He’s come to the view that society expects too much of young people – asking them to behave like little adults without providing the kind of support that ultimately helped him through dark times. “They need a place where they can mess up and learn, and mess up and learn,” Hecker says. “Too many kids today don’t get that opportunity.”

As he puts it in a TEDx talk posted online, “We have to seek to know them, and to know a version of them that’s beautiful even in those ugliest moments.”

That vantage point may be the quality that best identifies Hecker, say members of his staff. Nnake calls it caring and empathy. Jusna Perrin, who has been with the program from its early days, says it’s about patience. “What Mark has taught me is that there’s a specific long game in this,” she says. “We may not see the change we’d like to see in Year 1 or even Year 2.... But we never give up on them.”

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