When Mark Hecker was teaching at a transitional school for kids just out of juvenile detention, he noticed that most of his students weren’t super jazzed about catching up in school.
Since they had so much work to do in the basics, they also weren’t being asked to focus on anything other than their own learning. Mark wondered if this might be part of the problem.
“I’m a firm believer that we all do better when someone gives us responsibility for something we care about,” says Mark. “That’s what I felt we had to do with these kids.”
Inspired by idea that responsibility empowers students to push themselves, Mark founded Reach, Inc. in 2010, a one-of-a-kind afterschool tutoring program in Washington D.C. that hires teens to teach reading and writing to elementary school students.
In a district where 85 percent of ninth graders read below grade level, most of the teens hired by Mark and his team know firsthand what it’s like to fall behind in school. Helping younger students become proficient in reading at a young age gives them a chance to be an integral part of fixing this problem. And as it turns out, when teens feel useful and smart, they act that way.
A great example of one of Reach’s tutor-student pairs is Rashaan and Leonard. Interviewed in this short documentary produced by Stone Soup Films, Rashaan explains why he had a special connection with Leonard.
“People said they didn’t really want to work with him because he was too disrespectful, but I worked with him and it turned out to be a good fit,” he says. “When I was young, I was all types of bad. I guess I felt that I was headed down a wrong path and I feel that I don’t want Leonard to go down a wrong path.”
Leonard wasn’t the only one who benefitted from their tutoring sessions. By learning and re-learning basic reading concepts and being asked to explain them to someone else, Rashaan strengthened his own reading skills.
“My grades are looking much better now. Before they were looking like C’s, D’s, an F’s. Now they’re looking like all A’s and B’s,” Rashaan says with a smirk behind a cool exterior, trying hard to contain his pride and excitement.
This year, Reach expects to work with more youth like Rashaan and Leonard—75 tutors and 75 students in three different schools around the D.C. area. They’ve even started a new summer program designed to teach teens to write and publish a collaboratively-designed series of children’s books.
Mark sees successes like theirs and his refusal to let kids fail as part of a bigger conversation about the dominant narratives in education today.
“I had one person who actually said, ‘Wait, you let the illiterate thugs teach?’ I think the reality is that a lot of people think this even though no one will say it. And I can’t have a conversation to change their mind because they won’t admit that’s what they believe,” Mark says. “At Reach, we work to surface some of those things very intentionally.”
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