Our Growing Team: Lori

LoriOn July 1st, Lori Pitts became Reach’s fourth employee. She’ll be joining us, part-time, as our Curriculum & Creativity Coordinator.

You may not have heard that job title before – that’s because we made it up – so let me tell you a bit about how Lori’s past and present will contribute to Reach’s future!

A 2012 graduate of Davidson College, Lori brings experience as a Teaching Artist at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Imagination Stage. She also works with a great local nonprofit, Young Playwrights’ Theater.

Using her experience in theater and dance instruction, Lori will help Reach brings its curriculum alive. She will contribute to curriculum development efforts and support Program Instructors in the use of arts-integrated engagement strategies. She’ll also lead the effort to turn our children’s books into Readers Theater scripts for use in elementary school classrooms. Basically, her role is to use her creative instincts to make our curriculum and our instruction even more engaging to the tutors and students we serve.

Lori joined us in the Fall of 2013 as a Program Instructor co-leading our work at Eastern Senior High and Payne Elementary. As she transitions to our “central office” team, her experience as an instructor makes her uniquely qualified to ensure all our curricular materials and tools are aligned to support excellent instruction in the classroom.

Welcome Lori! We’re thrilled to have you join our team.

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Graduation Day

Four years ago, 20 9th grade students took a chance on Reach. To those students, Reach was a new program…a job. To me, that moment was a beginning. We had a belief that turning teens into tutors would lead to reading growth and improved academic outcomes. For four years, we have been monitoring indicators of progress. On Thursday, we were able to see the fruits of our hard work, and it was beautiful.

DC’s graduation rate is 63% – even lower for minority youth. From our founding, Reach has made a commitment to choosing to do the most difficult work. Without intervention, it is likely that our tutors would graduate at a rate even lower than the city average. That was not the case.

Of those 20 tutors that joined us in the fall of 2010, 16 have already graduated. Many of them attended multiple schools during their high school years, but they kept moving toward graduation. In addition to Perry Street Prep, members of that original cohort graduated from Anacostia, Dunbar, and Wise (MD). Of the four who have not graduated, three are on track to graduate within a year. One of the 20 is incarcerated, but he remains in touch with us, and he is working toward his GED. Reach’s first cohort of tutors will be heading to Morehouse, UDC, Trinity Washington University, Morgan State, the DC Firefighter Cadet Program, and more.

Reach’s graduation rate: 80%. And, our graduation rate could jump to 100% in the next year.

But, those numbers only tell part of the story. In the last four years, that cohort has been through so much. They have dealt with homelessness, incarceration, poverty, sexual assault, expulsion, neglect, and many other traumas. And still, as Dr. Angelou taught us, they rise.

In the last few days, many of these graduating tutors have taken time to tell us how much Reach meant to them. They told us they appreciated our unconditional support. To describe Reach, they used words like family.

In the last few days, I cried. I felt pride I didn’t know resided inside me. I got hugtackled (it’s a new word) by young people willing to share this moment with me. I consider myself lucky to know them. We are inspired by them and excited for them. We are honored to have been part of their journey. Congratulations to the class of 2014. And thank you. – Mr. Mark


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Reason #1

Reason #1: Napresha, Jordan, and Za’Metria

For the last 10 days, we have been revealing ten reasons to support Reach during DoMore24, a one-day local giving event that takes place June 19th!

Today, we share Reason #1:

At Reach, there is one honor above all others: The Hoodie. Reach tutors can earn promotions based on their performance both in and after school. The highest promotion available, Junior Staff, comes with a Reach staff hoodie. Until now, only two tutors – Rashaan and Kyare – had earned Junior Staff status. Today, three more tutors join this elite group, including our first two female Junior Staff members.

In addition to exceptional performance in the program, each tutor had to submit an essay explaining what it would mean to wear the hoodie.

  • Jordan’s (11th grade, Eastern High) response reflected his personality, quite serious. He spoke of The Hoodie showing that he doesn’t quit and that he is committed to helping others and improving himself. The Hoodie, he said, would show he is responsible and patient.
  • Napresha’s (11th Grade, Perry Street Prep) essay was filled with pride – she learned patience and credited Reach with “holding me together through high school.” Napresha, who hates accepting compliments, said she would proudly tell people she earned The Hoodie through hard work and commitment to her students.
  • Za’Metria’s (10th Grade, Perry Street Prep) response was the most emotional. “Reach isn’t just a program,” she said. “It’s my family.” She continued by telling us that Reach taught her to set goals and work toward them. And, by wearing The Hoodie, Za’Metria says she’ll be reminded that she can achieve her goals through hard work and consistent effort.
Junior Staff

Rashaan & Kyare sporting their Junior Staff hoodies

All of these tutors are leaders, role models, and heroes to the young students they serve. We proudly welcome them as Junior Staff members, and we look forward to presenting them with their hoodies at a ceremony this summer.

Tomorrow, we hope you’ll honor their work by supporting Reach during DoMore24, a one-day giving campaign. We have $20,000 in matching funds to compound the power of your contributions. Give tomorrow, and every dollar will be doubled. Give tomorrow to honor Napresha, Jordan, and Za’Metria. But, most important, give to support the possibility of teen potential unleashed.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter today to see what your generosity does when used to support the amazing young people with whom we get to work. Thank you.


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DoMore24: 10 Reasons to Give

#10) We have $20,000 in matching funds. One dollar from you = two dollars for Reach!

#9) Your gift will support the second year of our unique summer program, during which 30 teens will author books, make grants to local nonprofits, visit colleges, and read challenging texts.

jpatrick_201105122-59#8) Throughout his life, Brandon has experienced many challenges. He’s been expelled from school. He’s dealt with significant family challenges – including issues related to homelessness and incarceration. He’s failed classes. He’s been disrespectful to teachers.

But, then he became one. Now, he’s a leader, an author, and a voracious reader. And, in the fall, he’ll be a student at Allegheny College of Maryland.

#7) In four years, we have given away more than 2,000 books, allowing program participants to maintain reading gains during school breaks.

#6) We’ll let our students tell you. Our students from Payne Elementary school sent their tutors a card. One student wrote, “Thank you for helping me. It was so amazing. My test scores are off the hook because of you. I’ll miss you all. Love, Niamca.”

Kyare Reading#5) At Reach, we believe that teens have the ability to change their communities. When our tutors noticed that children’s books didn’t generally reflect their lives and experiences, we helped them become authors. In doing so, we allowed our tutors to inspire young readers and writers across the city through public readings that look quite different than the typical author event.

#4) We don’t talk about this often, but we believe it’s true. Teaching them to be tutors now also teaches them how to be parents (much!) later.

Arveone#3) Some of our tutors arrive with a hardened outer shell. We often hear phrases like “I don’t care” or “I don’t want to be here.” But, usually, they continue to show up, regularly showered in the affection of their young students.

On the last day, students were given a chance to share their favorite memories from the year. Two students spoke about how much they enjoyed their time with their hard-shelled tutor. You could barely hear the tutor’s words as she responded softly to another tutor standing nearby: “I may need to leave. They’re gonna make me cry.”

#2) Reach has only twice had rising seniors. And twice, we’ve had an alum selected to be a summer intern with Urban Alliance, DC’s most competitive high school internship program.

When asked about Sejal, Urban Alliance staff said, “She was amazing. We’re used to having interviews with young people. With Sejal, we had a conversation.”

Sejal, when asked about the interview, said, “I was confident. I mean, how many other applicants are Lead Tutors and published authors?”

What’s #1? Click to find out!

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Cheryl Irving: A Remembrance

20 years ago, I was in 7th grade. My English teacher was a woman named Cheryl Irving. I thought she was mean. Nothing I did was good enough. And, worse than that, she called me lazy.irving She said things about my unrealized potential…and she said them to my parents!

But there was a secret in my life – something she knew nothing about. My father was dying. Each morning, I would get up to help my father get ready for work. I would pack surgical wounds with gauze, tape a towel over the wounds to keep blood from staining his shirts, and head off to school. When first period arrived, I had already been up for hours.

Sometimes I slept. Sometimes I stared off, lost in thought. Many days, I arrived unprepared for class. Mrs. Irving would have none of it. She didn’t know that I deserved her pity. And, had she known, I don’t think she would’ve given it anyway.

The year ended, and the summer brought my father’s death. My relationship with Mrs. Irving grew over time. When she started a writing center to help those struggling in school, I was one of the first people she brought on as a tutor. Apparently, this woman who mercilessly tore apart everything I handed in actually thought I could write.

When I wrote my personal statement during the college application process, I dug out an old comment from Mrs. Irving. It served as the header of my essay. The writing that followed discussed the way I had learned to tap the potential she had seen in me. In recent years, when I returned to the school as a member of the board, Mrs. Irving always sought me out. She was so proud of all of Reach’s kids (and me).

On Wednesday, Mrs. Irving died unexpectedly.

She taught me how to write. She did this not by saying I was good at it, or by saying I could be better, but by artistically weaving the two together in a way only a master teacher could. It’s what I try to do every single day.

Mrs. Irving wasn’t my favorite teacher, but she may have been my best.

Each day, I remember three things I learned as a struggling 7th grade student in her class.

  • First, I refuse to offer pity. Like my father’s death from Cancer, the traumas experienced by Reach’s students are explanations for their struggles in school. That said, we can’t treat them as excuses. The moment we lower our expectations, we fail our students.
  • Second, I don’t aim to be the teacher Reach’s kids want today. I want to be – and I want my staff to be – the teacher our kids will appreciate later. There’s a big difference. Mrs. Irving drove me crazy, but I thank her every day.
  • Third, I make clear as often as possible how much I care about and believe in Reach’s kids. Even when I have to be tough, I do it from a place of caring – I frame it around my belief in their eventual success.

Mrs. Irving taught me all these things. There are few teachers that have had such an impact on my life, few educators whose loss could make me cry. One day, I hope to be half the educator Mrs. Irving was for so many years.

There will be a time in the next couple weeks when one of Reach’s kids tells us about life challenges getting in the way of school. We will show compassion. And then, without question, we will push them to succeed anyway. If Mrs. Irving taught me anything, it’s that they’ll thank us later.

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Hecker Named W.K. Kellogg Community Leadership Network Fellow

Local Nonprofit Leader Selected for Major National Fellowship
Reach Incorporated Founder one of 24 selected for national cohort of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network Fellowship.

jpatrick_201105122-13BATTLE CREEK, MI, May 13, 2014 – The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) named Mark Hecker, Executive Director of Reach Incorporated, a member of the inaugural cohort of the foundation’s newly launched Community Leadership Network.

The WKKF Community Leadership Network Fellowship targets individuals who can be transformative social change agents in their communities so that vulnerable children and their families can achieve optimal health and well-being, academic achievement and financial security.

Launched in 2010, Reach Incorporated recruits high school students who have experienced academic failure to work as elementary school reading tutors. Through this unique model, elementary school participants experience 1.5 grade levels of reading growth per year of participation. This growth, equal to that which might be expected in the classroom of a highly effective teacher, is generated by teens tutors who themselves experience more than 2 grade levels of reading growth.

“I’m ecstatic about this opportunity,” said Hecker, a former DC social worker of the year. “I look forward to learning from the other fellows so I might better support the amazing work of our staff, tutors and students. DC’s challenges are significant. With the Kellogg Foundation’s support, I look forward to contributing to the growth of a movement that recognizes the importance of community in creating equitable access to educational opportunities.”

Of the 24 fellows selected for the national cohort, four come from the District of Columbia. Joining Hecker are Lynsey Wood Jeffries, National CEO of Higher Achievement; Kim Bookard, Program Manager at the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative; and Oronde Miller, Senior Associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Reach Incorporated develops confident, grade-level readers and capable leaders by training teens to teach younger students, creating academic benefit for all involved. By trusting teens with real responsibility for real outcomes, Reach’s unique programs build foundational skills in an engaging and empowering way. To learn more about Reach Incorporated, visit www.reachincorporated.org.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast pioneer Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life. To learn more about the fellowship, visit www.wkkf.org/news-and-media/article/2014/05/inaugural-class-of-wkkf-community-leadership-network-convenes-in-battle-creek.

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On 5 Years…

This month, Reach celebrated its 5th birthday. It’s hard to know how to celebrate survival. For every new organization, the question is central: Will we make it?

We did. Half make it three years. A third make it five years. Here we are.

What do we have to show for it? We offer three stories:

IMG_4800A young man at Eastern is having a rough time. He’s having trouble finding motivation to do well in school, even though he continues to thrive with Reach. Today, when asked what reward we could offer to motivate him to improve his grades, he said, “I know what I want.” When asked, he explained, “Every Wednesday, we can check my grades. If I improve, on Thursdays, Mr. H (pictured above) will help me with my homework.” Given the opportunity to have anything he wanted, he wanted time with one of our staff members. At five years old, we see relationships matter.

A young woman at Perry Street Prep wants to be part of Urban Alliance, DC’s most competitive high school internship program. Yesterday, she interviewed. Today, I spoke with a member of Urban Alliance’s team. “She was kind of awesome,” he said. “With most of the kids, we have an interview. With her, we had a conversation.” She was surprised to hear the nice things we had told them about her. Always pushing her to do better, she didn’t realize how far we already recognized she had come. When given the opportunity to compete with teens from around the city, she rose to the top. At five years old, our teens can compete with anyone in the city.

A new tutor from Ballou was struggling. On a particularly bad day, she let the whole school hear her anger, filling the elementary school hallway with curse words. She was asked to leave the elementary school…permanently. But, we don’t fire tutors.CAM00368 There were meetings and meetings and meetings. Eventually, she had the opportunity to meet with the principal. Prepped by our staff, she did exceptionally well. Three weeks later, she returned and is working with a particularly difficult student. “Actually,” she says now, “she reminds me a little of what I was like when I was a kid.” Her student (pictured right) didn’t smile much before. After five years, we know that you get proven right when you refuse to give up on kids.

This experience has been exceptional. Each day, we learn. Each day, we fail. Each day, we succeed. But, more than anything, we are honored and humbled to work with the young people we get to spend time with each day.

Thank you for allowing us that opportunity. And thanks, as always, for reading.


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Unleveraged Resources

Public schools cannot solve all of DC’s problems. They are, however, unique in their ability to touch the large majority of DC’s children and families.

DC also has a large nonprofit community. Admittedly, there is a tremendous variety both in terms of program focus and program quality. In recent years, schools have worked to vet and organize the services provided, in schools, by nonprofit entities. They have also explored, at times, more formalized relationships with proven organizations.

More appropriate utilization of the local nonprofit community is the single strongest pathway to game-changing improvements in student performance. While some work is being done already, public schools could make significant improvements by better leveraging nonprofits in four ways:

  • Allow select nonprofit organizations to offer opportunities for credit: First, I do recognize this would involve policy changes through the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. However, it must be done. A teen that trains for and completes a 10k with Teens Run DC should get PE credit. A student that completes a Critical Exposure fellowship should get Art credit. Frankly, the teens in our program that read multiple books and became published authors this summer should be able to avoid attending summer school. This simple change would provide scheduling flexibility and allow schools to provide academic support and study hall during the school day.
  • Create a pathway for returned citizens to work with schools: It is seemingly common sense that we do not let former felons work in our schools. However, our city is full of individuals trying to build better lives after paying their debt to society. Additionally, some of these returned citizens are already the parents and relatives of our students. Are we protecting the kids, or protecting ourselves from litigation? Providing this opportunity would allow DC Central Kitchen to increase its capacity to provide healthy food to our students (they are currently limited because so many employees/trainees are former felons). Additionally, anyone who has ever stood outside a DC high school knows we could use help getting our teens into the building. The National Homecomers Association is already doing informal work providing safe passage. Couldn’t we utilize them to address truancy and tardiness as well? Regulations would still be necessary, but a permanent ban is not.
  • Providing training to align support to the district’s standards and sequence: The district does strong work around curriculum development and design. However, nonprofits generally only learn of this work when it becomes public. This puts us in a consistently reactive stance. Reach provides 140 additional hours of literacy instruction to teens and 70 additional hours to elementary school participants each year. While we do not want to simply repeat what happens in classrooms, our program team would benefit from district support in building the most supportive academic experience for the students we share.
  • Create a Partner Cabinet: DCPS has created a Parent Cabinet to better understand the needs of district parents. A similar body should be created for the nonprofit community. As a first project, the group should create an interactive platform with information about services available – perhaps built like One Degree, with the addition of relationship mapping functionality. For the most difficult-to-serve students, nonprofit partners often have stronger relationships than the schools.  We possess knowledge and relationships that can help manage transitions or reengage those young people who are not finding success in schools.

A sad example: Reach operates at Payne Elementary School. Relisha Rudd, the young girl currently missing, attended Payne while living at DC General Family Shelter. When concerned about her absences, Payne went through the necessary channels to investigate by going to the shelter. If asked, I would have known that a child at the shelter likely connected with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. I know Jamila, the Executive Director. It would have taken me less than an hour to determine when Relisha was last seen – I would have just called Jamila. Schools must have access to knowledge about the network of nonprofits that support students. I would have loved to help, but there is no way the school would have known to ask.

Better leveraging the nonprofit community would require investment. It would be necessary to build an infrastructure to ensure high-quality collaboration. But, if done effectively, the results would be significant. We haven’t even mentioned the possibility of staff-sharing, support during suspensions, and/or parent education. Effective collaboration would be game changing for our kids.

Without doubt, one could point out problems with the suggestions outlined above. I make no claim they’re perfect. But, if nothing else, they could start an extraordinarily important conversation about better utilizing the resources available right now. Let’s get to work.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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Why We Write

On Sunday, The New York Times featured a piece by Walter Dean Myers on the lack of people of color in children’s books. Mr. Myers, in part, uses examples from his own life to lend credence to an old adage: If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. For years, youth workers have used this single sentence to explain why we must allow young people to see role models. We want them to see it, so they can be it.

A first grade student at King Elementary School.

A first grade student at King Elementary School.

But, this places the onus entirely on young people. We want them to see it and expect them to be it. Mr. Myers goes on to point out a flaw in this logic. Being it is not simply the choice of the young person. There is power involved. Those with power must be able to see the young person becoming the it in question.

We speak about it as a unilateral decision – a young person that sees it can choose to be it. In reality, a young person that sees it must often be given the opportunity to be it. It’s through addressing both layers that change can be catalyzed.

A young reader with her favorite bedtime book

A young reader with her favorite bedtime book

And that’s why we write.

Our books contribute to children’s literature in many ways. First of all, young readers get to see characters that look like them. As important, our authors wrote about universal themes. Though all of our authors were African-American, they did not write stories specific to the Black experience. They wrote stories in which the characters, when human, happened to look like the students they tutor.

Beyond the books themselves, young readers who come across our books also see the authors. In this case, they see what they can be: writers. Plus, the books are good. We have been selling them, proving that a market exists for diverse children’s books (a topic covered in a companion piece by Mr. Myers’ son). Because we don’t have the same profit expectations as publishing houses, we can play an important role in creating this market.

Some engaged readers in Bethesda, Maryland

Some engaged readers in Bethesda, Maryland

Finally, our children’s books play a role in shaping the opinions of adults. Many of the people that bought our books did so to support Reach. We imagine they thought it was a “nice project” and that it was a good experience for our teens. Then, something special happened. Both the adults and their kids discovered that our books are legitimately good. This experience immediately changes the way our authors are seen.

Our authors doing a public reading of their work

Some of our authors doing a public reading of their work

By inspiring young readers and shaping the opinions of adults, our teen authors will allow children of color to see what they can be. But, as important – as Mr. Myers tells us – our young authors ensure that children and parents of privilege see it as well.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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When Schools Close…

On Wednesday evening, Perry Street Prep Public Charter School’s charter was up for renewal at the DC Public Charter School Board. It was renewed with four conditions – one being the closure of the high school in June of 2015. On Wednesday, the decision was made to close a school and few people seemed to notice.

Perry Street Prep (formerly Hyde Leadership) is a special place to me. In September of 2010, they gave us a shot. Armed only with an idea and a belief in its possibility, I entered Hyde Leadership and launched Reach. From that seed, something beautiful has grown. This year, we’ll see our first cohort graduate. Next year, we’ll see some more of our readers and leaders from Perry Street Prep walk the stage. Then, never again.

But, the school’s history is more than that. Hyde Leadership was a place that truly valued character, a place that made time for the development of young people. As test score pressures mounted, this commitment to character faded (and the school’s name changed). You still see traces at the school, teens that offer the firm handshake they learned as elementary school students. You still see it on the field – home of the best urban rugby program this country has ever seen.

But, on Wednesday, a decision was made to close the high school. This is the second Ward 5 high school to close in two years. There is no other high school in the surrounding area and no evident plan for the students. And that’s where it hurts most. While we talk of policy, improvement plans, and transitions, actual students do not know where they will continue their high school careers. Current sophomores can stay for next year, but will then be forced to find new schools as 12th graders. Current 9th grade students find themselves in a similar situation, knowing full well that many schools do not accept upperclassmen.

It is not lost on me that this decision was made following the deadline for the MySchoolDC lottery, which could have given students the ability to explore other school options for next year (a letter was sent to families about this possibility one week ahead of the deadline). While some will say that the students have a full year to plan for the future, I expect a mass exodus of quality teachers. While teacher retention has been an ongoing challenge at PSP, few will want to remain at a school marching toward its end.

None of this is to say that the wrong decision was made. That is for other people to debate. What I do know, however, is that schools are not simply buildings in which teachers talk and students listen. They are communities. When schools close, communities are disrupted and children experience trauma. Teens especially, who experience life through social interactions with peers, suffer from the loss of social groups. When we fail to manage these transitions appropriately – or at all – we fail our kids.

Perry Street Prep is the birthplace of Reach, and it’s the home of so many of our children. They are beautiful young people. Many of them are skilled tutors and published authors.

On Wednesday, they were told that their community is irreparably broken. And now, it seems, they’re left to figure out what to do.

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