REACH INCORPORATED

Based in Washington DC, Reach Incorporated recruits, trains, and hire steens experiencing social and academic challenges to serve as tutors for elementary school students facing challenges of their own. The result is improved literacy for both the students and their tutors. In addition to summer leadership academies and afterschool tutoring,  teens from Reach Incorporated have authored 33 books published through Shout Mouse Press.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

Let's be honest teenagers today often get a bad rap. We look at them and say that they're self-absorbed or they spend too much time on their devices, or they're too wrapped up in their social lives. Under the leadership of Mark Hecker and his team for Reach Incorporated, a group of teens in Washington, DC embodies how youth promote literacy culture.

 

Molly Ness

Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast, featuring the innovative people and programs who work to provide book access to our nations under-resourced areas or overlooked populations. I'm Dr. Molly Ness, lifelong reader book, nerd, teacher, educator. I've created the End Book Deserts podcast so that all children have access to books and reading culture. The End Book Deserts podcast, a part of the education podcast network, just like the show you're listening to now shows on the network are individually owned and opinions expressed may not reflect others. Find other interesting education podcasts at edupodcastnetwork.com. Today we are joined by a heck of a guy, Mark Hecker whose good work has fortunately not gone unnoticed. Formerly the D.C. social worker of the year. He has been recognized by the W.K. Kellogg foundation and the Aspen Institute. His current work with Reach Incorporated is also exemplary earning recognition as a best practice honoree in 2018, by the Library of Congress Literacy Awards. Reach Incorporated recruits, trains, and hires teens experiencing social and academic challenges to serve as tutors for elementary school students facing challenges of their own. The result is improved literacy for both the students and their tutors. Thank you. And good morning to Mark Hecker out of Washington D.C.'s Reach Incorporated. Thanks for joining us today. 

 

Mark Hecker

Thanks for having me. 

 

Molly Ness

So, what is Reach Incorporated? What do you do and what is your mission?

 

Mark Hecker

Sure. So, Reach promotes grade level reading and leadership by hiring teenagers to be elementary school reading tutors. Uh, so in our model, it's an afterschool program twice a week. We train teens on becoming literacy tutors and twice a week, they work with second and third grade students to advance, uh, foundational reading skills. And through that experience, we're able to generate pretty significant academic growth, literacy growth for both the students and their tutors. So, it's a tutoring program that works in both directions. For the teens, we also offer some support around leadership development in the summer, uh, college prep work for those that are pursuing that track. Uh, and then also as part of our summer program over the last eight years, our teens have authored 33 children's books, um, inspired by the work they do as tutors. They wanted to create the types of books that they think would get their students excited about reading.

 

Molly Ness

So, let's pause there and let me pick up on the inclusion and the focus on teenagers. I am a former middle school teacher- have lots of experience with, um, high school kids and not every teenager is looking to do something like this after school. So why teens? How do you motivate them? Explain the logistics of working with teenagers and having them be your, the population that you're sort of relying on.

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah, I mean, the- the first hook is you, you heard me say that we hire teens, so they get paid. Um, that's a significant attention grabber at the beginning of our recruitment season. Um, but what we find more often than not as that, we're, we're looking to recruit teens who haven't yet found success in, in school. And because of that, they're often their experience of school is often feeling sort of less than, or that they're not, they're just a troublemaker. They're not an asset to the school community. Uh, and we really find that teens are looking for opportunities to feel good about the role they can play. Many of them have many of the kids we serve in DC are often caring for younger siblings or family members. They have a lot of experience with younger children. It's something that they feel good about. So while many school programs are based on sort of show good behavior, and then you'll earn additional responsibility. We actually flip that on its head and think that if you give people responsibility for something, they actually care about, the behavior and engagement will follow.

 

Molly Ness

So, what does the tutor tutoring partnership look like in a sort of break it down for us? So, you've got these teenagers working with second and third graders. How often? What are they doing? Where does it happen? What are the sort of nitty-gritty logistics?

 

Speaker

Yeah, so we're a school-based program. So, we operate in six high schools in one community center in DC. So, in each of those places, we recruit cohorts of tutors. So, let's say at one high school, there's a group of 25 tutors on Mondays and Wednesdays for an hour after school, they're being trained. And literally what that training looks like is they will review the materials there'll be using the next day in a tutoring session. They'll create learning activities. They'll troubleshoot, they'll make sure they have mastery of the material themselves. Uh, cause we, you know, for ego purposes, we don't want second and third graders correcting their high school tutors. Um, so Mondays and Wednesdays, it's really a training session where instead of it feeling like a remedial tutoring session, it's an opportunity for the teens to feel like they're going through a job training experience and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, those teens walk over to a nearby elementary school. So again, we have one high school partnered with one elementary school. Uh, they work with second and third grade students to complete those activities. And that often involves sort of a warmup, some sort of skill building practice and then an application activity. Um, and then potentially some time just to do some paired reading at the end. Um, but the tutors are working with either individuals or small groups of kids. You know, one to three students will be sitting around a tutor. Um, and obviously the, the teens, the tutors, uh, have the opportunity to really build confidence and continually practice literacy skills in this non-stigmatizing way. And the elementary school students are just really excited to spend time with the big kids and- and are pretty solidly engaged because of that.

 

Molly Ness

So, um, 33 books written by your teenage tutors, what was that process? How did that happen? And, um, what did those books look like?

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah, like, like many of the best ideas that have happened at Reach, it came from one of our teams. Um, when, you know, eight or nine years ago, Keyer was talking about the books available in our library. And we, we work pretty hard to, um, make our classroom libraries look representative of the kids we serve. Uh, but he made a comment. He said, we could write better books than these, um, cause they weren't necessarily reflecting, uh, the real lived experience of the kids we served. Um, sometimes the there've been some improvements in sort of the racial makeup of book characters, but still, they're not often about the, the real lived experiences of the kids we serve. So, um, I, at the time called a friend of mine who was a creative writing coach and asked her to come in and consult in the process. She has since stood up a non-profit called Shout Mouse Press, um, that helps organizations, uh, they partner with organizations to write books by what they call unheard voices. Um, and so Reach was Shout Mouse’s, well, Reach partnered with Kathy before Shout Mouse existed and then sort of helped give birth to it. Um, Kathy went so well with Reach that she sort of took it and ran with it. Um, and so each summer the kids spend about five weeks working with Shout Mouse, writing coaches to create stories they're paired with, uh, generally emerging illustrators. So sometimes professional, but early career illustrators, either in school or, or professional, uh, to bring those books to life. So, the kids are telling the illustrators what they want their, uh, characters to look like. Um, they're writing all the words they're being coached through the process. And then they finish up the writing process at the beginning of August. And then we spend about a three-month sprint turning those into high quality publication, worthy books, um, which come out each November, uh, there 33 of them. And what makes them unique is that the stories they tell we have stories about, you know, Dina Misses Her Mom, is about a young girl whose mother is incarcerated. The Princess of Fort Hill Shelters is about a young girl growing up in a shelter. There's lots of issues about belonging. Um, the most recent books are very representative of the moment we're living in now. So, one of the four books is a story of a new immigrant to the country. One of them is about a kid who can't find space in her home during the pandemic, cause we're all quarantined at home. Um, and then two of them, uh, this year sort of reflect the Black Lives Matter movement and what's going on in terms of the reckoning with racial injustice in our country. Um, so it's really an opportunity for our teams to, to take seriously, um, how to process what's going on in their world for young readers and to engage them in the reality of what's going on around him.

 

Molly Ness

And are these books readily available? I know that, um, there are going to be lots of listeners out there who think I want some of these for my classroom library or for my literacy organization.

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah. The easiest way to find all of them is if you go to shoutmousepress.org/reach, um, you can see a list of all of our books. The new ones don't technically come out till mid-November. So, they're not there yet, but will be as of November 20th. Um, but yeah, you can see the 29 that are out now there, and you can buy sets of them, uh, or you can buy individual books, but you can see all the, uh, descriptions there.

 

Molly Ness

So, what is the community's response been to this program? How long have you guys been around? I assume that over the years you've been growing in numbers and maybe outreach, um, explain that for us.

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah. So, Reach started just as the afterschool tutoring program in 2010. Um, and in that first year we hired 20 tutors and, uh, worked with 20 students. Uh, right now we partner with, uh, about 14 schools and a community center to hire 200 teens a year to tutor 200 elementary school students in our afterschool program. I mentioned the other programs we have. And in addition to the book writing, we actually run a book grants program where we give away about 2,500 books each year, uh, to make sure that we can get them into the hands of the kids that we think most want to see them that might not be purchasing books online regularly. Um, but we, we have had the chance to grow. We've chosen at this point to stay in DC and focus our work there because the need is significant. Um, but yeah, we're, we're excited to continue growing and we're just beginning to explore the possibility of how could we support other people in doing this type of work

 

Molly Ness

And how we're speaking at the beginning of the school year that's obviously very different than any other. Um, how have you had to respond and adapt, um, to COVID?

 

Mark Hecker

It's been pretty brutal. I mean, I'm not, I'm not gonna lie that, you know, virtual instruction is hard and it's very different. And when you're in the afterschool space, um, our kids are really tired of being on computers and we find that we've had to, um, take a step back and sort of adjust to what they’re looking for. So, we're doing everything virtually now. That's what we have to do. And we imagine that even if schools open this year, there will be protocols that prevent our high school students from entering elementary schools. So, we think we'll be virtual for this entire year. Um, so we're creating opportunities for our teens to do some live lessons on Zoom. We're creating opportunities for our teens to create instructional videos. Um, but we still want them to be in that position of, of teaching, um, and contributing to the community, which is what they're really interested in doing. But we've also created space in our sessions just for like social check-ins, you know, playing online games. Um, we keep hearing from our kids that the thing they value most about Reach right now is the fact that we're working hard to maintain the community. Like we're checking in with them. We care about them. Uh, and unfortunately a lot of what school has become at the moment is a list of assignments to complete. Uh, because I think teachers sort of feel helpless about how to do their work sometimes, and that often feels very overwhelming to the kids. So, we're, we're trying to be supportive in the ways we can. Um, we're trying to create the most engaging, uh, online opportunities we can and, and give the teams the opportunity to remain leaders in their community. And that's, I mean, that's forced us to learn. We've become Zoom pros. We, uh, are doing a little bit of video editing work to create stuff and, you know, stretching some new muscles, but we're trying to find ways to make sure that our kids still get to be in charge, which is sort of at the core, what Reach is about it's about giving responsibility to teens because when you do that, they, they step up to the plate.

 

Molly Ness

And I would imagine that the socio-emotional component for both your teens and your younger kids right now, realistically matters more than kind of any literacy tutoring that you can provide just within the, the confines of Zoom and such that kids are so much missing that socialization piece and, um, being around peers and being around cross age peers. Um, so I would imagine that a lot of your sessions are focusing more on that

 

Mark Hecker

A hundred percent. And I mean, most people aren't listening are probably aware of Maslow's hierarchy, but you can't really talk about literacy if you're not dealing with some of the other things. So, we've also, you know, we bought a bunch of laptops that we've distributed. We have an emergency fund that's been helping some families with things like groceries. Um, it's a scary time right now. And to assume that kids can just ignore that and step into an academic environment is, is foolish. And though we can't fix every problem. Um, we've, we've tried to show up in the ways that we can so that we can pay some attention to academics once we've attended to those other things.

 

Molly Ness

Yea, I want to pick up on that for a second, because I'm, I've been doing some work in my community trying to reach parents who are supporting their children with virtual and hybrid learning of obviously during a very stressful time. And I always talk about Maslow, before Bloom. Maslow, being the philosophy that we all have a hierarchy of socioemotional needs everything from our basics of shelter and food, all the way up to just interpersonal acknowledgement and, um, all of our emotional needs. And then Bloom being that taxonomy of, um, of learning applications. And what we mean by Maslow before Bloom is, we can't learn anything until our human needs, our interpersonal, our socio-emotional human needs are met. Any learning is secondary to it. So clearly you guys are, um, modeling that and showing that for teens, which is actually going to really be an important life lesson for them to honor as they move forward with their lives.

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah. And I mean, you mentioned reaching out to parents. What we found in our community is so many of our kids' families are full of essential hourly workers that teens are taking on an incredible burden of caring for younger siblings as well. So, many of our teens are trying to manage their own schoolwork, but they're also literally managing the Zoom schedule of their seven-year-old brother or sister and helping them with the work. And so many parents have learned the difficulty of trying to do both of those things. And, um, to imagine that as a society, we're thrusting that upon a lot of 15- and 16-year old’s too, it's, it's hard to imagine how they could manage all of those things,

 

Molly Ness

Not to mention the emotional heaviness of the world outside of the pandemic, our political, our race relations, our social needs. It's, it's a heavy time. Um, but clearly you guys are really honoring, um, where kids are and what they're able to contribute and a way that's gonna, um, meet their needs and also enable them to move forward productively.

 

Mark Hecker

We try and I mean, it it's one of those times where the payment matters again, um, Reach is, creating a community, but participation that community also comes with a paycheck, which in this moment is not an insignificant thing for many of the families we serve.

 

Molly Ness

Sure. Um, so for people who are interesting in, um, replicating work or connecting and doing similar things in your, um, in their communities, what is a lesson that you've learned that you would like to share out?

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah, I mean, we, we often talk about the fact that our primary client is the teenagers, and our primary product is an elementary school tutoring program. And we found the most important lesson for us was really determining at the beginning of this process, what our values were and what we were going to lean on when things got difficult. So, for example, um, probably the central core value of, of Reach's program is that once we hire a tutor, you cannot be fired. Um, membership in our community is permanent. And that means that sometimes when a teen has a bad day at an elementary school and the elementary school decides they don't want that teen returning, we have to figure out how to navigate that relationship and show that teen that we're still going to stand by them and find ways for them to remain involved in our community and try to re-earn the trust of that school so that they can reenter. Um, I think in education today, we far too often sort of cut ties or push kids out. And we found that to be a tremendous, uh, tremendously important part of our program, both in the way we build partnerships with schools, but also in the degree of commitment we get from our teens because they know we will stand by them. Um, and that from the beginning was something that was written into our documents and part of our culture. And that meant that when there were those times where it got hard and we were challenged, um, it was really important for us to, to stick to that. And I, I say that as sort of the cool word to anyone interested in doing it because the model itself, I mean, older kids, helping younger kids is not a brand-new thing. Um, what Reach’s done that's a little unique is that the older kids we're hiring are not the honor roll students that want to make their resume look better. We're trying to find the kids that could use a little bit of a boost. Um, and if you want to serve kids that need the level of support that we're trying to provide, you have to be willing to commit to them. Um, you can't just sort of invite them all in and then see which ones survive following your rules over a period of time. So that commitment to doing the hard work and understanding that, um, you know, someone's going to talk back to a teacher, there's going to be a fight one day. Like those things happen and you need to stand by kids and teach them how to get through those, those things and how to repair relationships. Um, and that's been real core, I'd say on, on the instructional side, um, we've really learned a lot, but I think also continue to struggle with how do you balance high quality academic interventions with not making kids feel like it's another school class after school? Um, so how do we keep it fun? How do we bring arts in, how do we use our own books? So sometimes you're doing these activities with the tutor that wrote this book. Um, but how do we make it feel special and unique? So, it doesn't feel like another class after school. Um, and that is, uh, that's a balance we continued to try to, to achieve because we're trying to get results. Um, but we also want kids, you talked about culture of reading at the beginning. We want kids to look forward to it. We want them to be excited about reading. Um, and we find many of our, most of our teens and many of our young people arrive in our program having negative thoughts about reading. And we need to address that too.

 

Molly Ness

So, you brought up results, I'm always interested in finding out about results and, and impact. I'm hoping you can speak to that a bit.

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah. Um, I mean, there are a lot of, uh, different ways we can approach it, but I'll start with sort of the reading level. What we've seen historically looking over the last 10 years, uh, is that our elementary school kids are, um, advancing faster than their non-participating peers generally, uh, between one and a quarter and one and a half grade levels per year for participants in our program. Uh, like I said, we work with second and third graders and our goal is to have kids leave third grade reading at or above grade level. And typically, if we work with kids for that two-year period, um, we're generally able to achieve that, um, what gets Reach most of it's a notoriety, if that's the right word, is that, um, we do that. We do that at the elementary school level, but the teens actually advanced even faster. We, we often see upwards of two or more grade levels of growth per year for our teens. Um, because they are finally working within a curriculum that actually matches the skill gaps, they have with the practice they're doing. Um, so many of our kids enter high school often, most often reading somewhere between a third and a sixth-grade level. Um, so they really do need some of that foundational literacy work that's not happening in the high school curriculum. We're not teaching reading in high school for the most part. Um, so it, it does address some of those gaps in a way that leads to sometimes dramatic increases in reading. Um, we've also, I mean, we've distributed over 15,000 books in the last six years. Uh, I mentioned we've published 33 of them. We have a- on-time graduation rate of about 90% for our tutors. Um, and the district average is in the low sixties. Um, so we've really seen a tremendous growth, not only in reading, but also in sort of the kid’s commitment to school, um, and, and their interest in creating a better future for themselves, which is not necessarily where all of our kids were when they entered our program.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I'm excited to share out some of the media coverage, um, and some stories around Reach Incorporated on the End Book Deserts website. So, um, I know that listeners will want to find out more about that. Um, my final question for you is something that I ask of all of my guests in the spirit of building, reading culture and promoting literacy. I like to ask people about a book that they have read at some point in their life past or present that has had a really profound impact on them. It's sort of a bit different than what's your favorite book. Um, a book that sort of lingers with you and really has, has made a mark on you. Um, and as a lifelong reader myself, I know it's virtually impossible to narrow it down to one book. I always have people who sort of try to manipulate the question and say like, well, I would say this, but I'm not going to choose that one. And, you know, by the time they're done, they've really mentioned five different books. I'm okay with that. But what is that one book that really resonates with you?

 

Mark Hecker

Yeah, I'm going to cheat a little bit, cause I'm going to be self-promoting. So, the one that comes to mind is it's called One Lonely Camel, and it's one of the books by Reach tutors and it's meaningful to me on a number of levels, but one of them is just the idea that we had this sort of crazy idea that said teens could write publication, worthy books for the kids they served. And One Lonely Camel was the first time that I read one. It was like, we did it like, this is, this is real, it's one of the first four books, but it's still one of the favorites of kids. Um, and it, it does so beautifully and unintentionally deal with so many of the cultural issues around, um, dealing with building a culture of literacy. So, the first time that I ever saw someone read it aloud in a classroom, um, so Larry is a camel, and his best friend is Tunechi, a dreadlocked hippo. And they live at the zoo, but Tunechi is actually a nickname of Lil Wayne and most white teachers don't know that. So immediately you saw a classroom where kids like the white teacher would mispronounce the word and kids were correcting the teacher because they had this cultural touchstone that the teacher didn't have. And that's so often happens in the opposite way. Um, the, the camel, I guess, both of them actually rap in the story. So, you see people trying to read that aloud and the kids get really into it, want to do that. And it's been this book that lingered with me because even someone that believes so fully in what teens can do and was fully committed to the idea of teens, being able to be literacy leaders in their community. Um, I found myself surprised by that book and it was a reminder to me, and it continues to be a reminder to me, to always, um, remember the teens can do far more than we expect from them a lot. And that book has always been super meaningful to me. It's still the one that I probably give away the most. Uh, it's one of the first ones we use in our curriculum because it's so engaging, and kids love it each year. We still have Larry introduces himself through rap in the book and we still have our kids do that in our sessions. Um, and the book has just been so meaningful to me and, you know, it's eight years later and you know, two of the authors of that book are now, uh, early childhood education professionals. Um, and you know, one has served in the Marines and one is gainfully employed. And, um, they're like real life adults now, but this thing they did when they were 16 and 17 years old, like lives on, in this very powerful way. And it has always been very meaningful to me.

 

Molly Ness

That is totally amazing. And obviously I'm going to need to get my hands on it and share it with my students who are future teachers and always looking for books to engage their students. Um, and your line about teens as literacy leaders’ sort of says it all and just encompasses all of the work that you guys are doing. Um, I'm really looking forward to sharing this out with the world. And, um, following that, the work that you guys continue to do down in DC, um, obviously a lot of your original work about research around book deserts from Susan Neuman was housed in DC. So, you guys are really, um, tackling it head on and really building a sustainable literacy culture that is benefiting not only younger kids, older kids, teachers, parents, um, everybody. And that is really, um, just so admirable. So, thank you so much for your time and for your work and for your passion. And we'll look forward to seeing where you go, where you guys go down in the, in the road ahead. 

 

Mark Hecker

All right, thanks so much. I appreciate it. 

 

Molly Ness

So, it's time for the portion of the podcast called related reading, where I talk about a book from my personal or professional library that relates to the topic at hand of today's podcast. For today, I wanted to feature a book that showcases teens, making the right decisions as shown by the tutors from Reach Incorporated. Pretty much everyone in my life, my family, my friends, my students, even my ten-year-old know that I love Jason Reynolds. We've rubbed elbows at conferences, at an airport bar. And even as a guest in 2019 of this podcast- that's why I naturally chose the new really released graphic novel version of Long Way Down. I may have previously booked a Long Way Down, a brilliant novel that follows a 15-year-old, who must make a crucial decision after the murder of his brother, all in the time it takes for an elevator travel 60 seconds to the ground floor. The graphic novel version is just as compelling, and I'll never stop advocating for all students to have the right to read graphic novels. That reminds me of a joke that I just heard. What do you call a kid with a graphic novel? A reader, but I digress. The graphic novel rendition of Long Way Down is haunting compelling and highlights the main characters, internal conflict. I'm thrilled for its release. And mark my words, I see a film adaptation of this book. And if Jason Reynolds cares to invite me to the movie premiere, I will gladly go.

 

Molly Ness

That wraps it up for this episode of End Book Deserts. If you know of a person or program doing innovative work to get books into the hands of young readers, email me at molly@endbookdeserts.com. For more about my work and for more about the program featured on this episode, check out our webpage www.endbookdeserts.com. Follow me on social media at End Book Deserts and share out your stories and reactions with the hashtag End Book Deserts. Thanks to Dwayne Wheatcroft for graphics and copy and to Benjamin Johnson for sound editing. Until the next episode, happy reading!