Photo from Reach Incorporated.

A DC nonprofit called Reach Incorporated hires struggling high school readers to tutor struggling elementary school readers. It may sound counterintuitive, but both groups seem to benefit.

Fewer than 20% of DC 8th-graders read at a proficient level, according to national test results last year. The proportion of proficient 4th-grade readers is only slightly better.

Where others might see just a yawning educational gap, Mark Hecker saw a potential bridge. Hecker, a former social worker, envisioned a program that would train 9th-grade students to teach younger ones, and in the process, help the older students make up lost ground.

Hecker launched Reach Incorporated in 2010 and serves as its executive director. The program matches high school students with second- and third-graders.

Although the teens start out reading at a 4th- to 6th-grade level, Hecker says 75% of the program’s 11th-graders end up reading at grade level or above after 3 years in the program. And as paid workers with a purpose, they save face.

“Instead of handing them a Dr. Seuss book, we hand them a Dr. Seuss book and a 7-year-old, and that eliminates the stigma” of school failure, explained Hecker, who expects to have 100 Reach tutors on the job serving a like number of students at 4 elementary schools this fall.

During the school year, tutors spend 4 hours a week in the program, two of them mentoring students and the other two learning the skills needed to teach reading. Over the summer, the program ramps up to 4 paid hours a day for older participants, who read books, craft resumes, visit workplaces, and tour colleges.

With the help of two college art students and one professional writer, the teens also team up to create something still rare in libraries: picture books that reflect the lives of low-income children. “We thought the best way to address the lack of material was for the teens to write it,” Hecker said.

Last summer, the program produced 4 of these volumes, with titles such as One Lonely Camel and The Airplane Effect, about a sick boy who throws a paper airplane out of the window, setting off an unexpected chain of events. This summer, 5 original books are underway.

Importance of empathy

The teens bring a crucial strength to their work: empathy. “They recognize what it’s like to be a struggling reader,” Hecker said, “and so they want to prevent that from happening to someone else.”

Za’Metria Froneberger, a rising 11th-grader at Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School, began working for Reach roughly a year ago. Her task was simple but daunting: to help Makea, a struggling second-grader at Burroughs Elementary School, learn to love reading. The high schooler discovered the younger child had a penchant for humor and responded to funny books.

“It changed my personality,” said Froneberger of her tutoring. “It taught me to be more patient, that you can change the impact of a child’s life by the things you do.”

It’s no accident that the Reach program targets students in the mid-elementary grades. Hecker cites the research suggesting that between third and fourth grades, children shift from learning to read to reading to learn. “Our goal is to prepare them for that transition,” Hecker said.

One professional observer of the Reach model counts herself “thoroughly impressed,” and she has the data to prove it. As academic intervention coach for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Jennifer Johnson serves as liaison between Reach and one of the schools it serves, Simon Elementary.

“Oh, my goodness, we saw great gains,” Johnson said, pointing to Reach results from the last academic year: Some 50% of the second-graders served (12 children) boosted their reading ability significantly, she said. Among 3rd-grade students in the Reach program, that was true for 83%.

Yet even those gains are insufficient for some students, cautions Johnson. She cites the case of one boy in the program who shot up 6 reading levels yet still failed to meet the benchmark expected for his grade. He had started too far behind.

“They come with so many needs, so many deficiencies that for them, 25-plus in the classroom may be too much,” Johnson said, referring to typical class sizes in the early grades. “If we had more tutors, we’d definitely have students to receive the services.”

Tutor on the honor roll

The tutors benefit as well. Sarita McCard says her son Rico, a rising junior at Eastern High School, joined Reach during a tough transition to 9th grade. At the time, McCard says, “he wasn’t making A’s and B’s.” She credits the program for giving him the confidence and motivation to attain the honor roll for every marking period in 10th grade.

“He’s more focused, more inspired,” said McCard of her son. “He feels he’s doing something greater than simply working and making a paycheck.”

Yet such striking turnarounds, even multiplied by 80 to 100 tutors recruited annually by Reach, represent only a sliver of the achievement gap affecting tens of thousands of District students. Asked about the modest size of his program, Hecker says he is deliberately growing it slowly, in order to preserve “depth over breadth.” But he hopes to double the number of participants over the next few years.

Meanwhile, inquiries about Reach have been streaming in from across the country and from as far away as South Africa and Curaçao, Hecker says. He has a simple message for those who wish to replicate the success of his fledgling program.

“What makes Reach work is that the teens feel cared about, supported, and empowered,” Hecker said. “The model is helpful, but it’s the relationships that matter.”

Greater Greater Education Staff Contributor Paula Amann brings experience as a high school bilingual teacher, an editor on education policy, and a journalist. She is also the mother of a student in a local public school. She believes school systems should choose teachers, create curricula, and set policy as if the right to a good public education were enshrined in the US Bill of Rights.