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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Meet Our Tutor: Darne’sha

DaneshaAs Darne’sha walked out of Simon Elementary School after a tutoring session, she ran into a teacher she had during her time at Simon. Now a Ballou High student, she told her former teacher what she was doing in the building. “Really?” the teacher said. “Who do you tutor?”

When Darne’sha mentioned the young girl’s name, the teacher froze. “Seriously?…I just assessed that student today and she had a big jump in reading.”

Darne’sha smiled, brushed her shoulder off, and walked away. The two adults stood silent, amazed by teen talent unleashed.

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Channeling Mr. Toms

The return address caught my attention – it read United States Department of the Treasury. On that December morning, we opened that envelope first. At any nonprofit, the end of the year is an exciting time. Checks arrive with greater frequency than any other time of the year. But, when you get something from the Treasury Department, you get a little concerned.

My first thought: Uh oh. What did I do wrong?

Upon opening the envelope, we discovered a modest check. The memo read Bureau of Prisons and was followed by a series of numbers. I recognized the numbers as a prisoner ID. I turned to a colleague and said, “I think we just got our first donation from a federal prisoner.”

I went quickly to my computer and began trying to learn more. I found his name and learned it did not connect him to any of our tutors or students. In fact, he had been in prison long enough that he couldn’t have possibly ever known any of our tutors or students on the outside. He was from DC. We learned he was about 20 years into a life sentence for a series of drug crimes in the early 90s.  This was, put simply, a gift from a stranger – we’re not even sure how he knows about our work!

The amount is also worth noting. Given the absurdly low wages paid to working inmates, I quickly realized that the contribution likely represented several weeks, if not a month, of this man’s pay from his prison job. And, in prison, money is generally needed for any personal comforts – extra food, toiletries, or stamps. He could have, without doubt, used the money himself.

It became clear that this small gesture was an act of extraordinary generosity.

At Reach, we try to be generous each day. Generous in the patience we show, in the forgiveness we give, and in the support we provide. But, Mr. Toms, this new supporter, taught us about true generosity – the kind that happens without request and without expectation of reply.

I wish I were more like Mr. Toms.

As part of our year-end fundraising campaign, we made a commitment to gift copies of our teen-authored children’s books to schools and programs that serve students in need. We will be giving away 1,000 of these books in the next four months. If only a little, we hope these donations inspire and engage young readers across the city. And, we hope to use them to recognize those that have been so generous to Reach – people that demonstrate the type of generosity Mr. Toms showed.

We will give these books to honor people like Jamila Larson. Jamila is the Founder of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (HCPP). Last summer, she spent time talking about her work with Reach’s summer program participants. We will donate books to HCPP’s program sites in honor of her incredible generosity.

Additionally, in the last year, we’ve worked with Free Minds Book Club to facilitate poetry workshops with our teens. To thank the young men and women who volunteered their time, we will make book donations in their honor to classrooms at the elementary schools they attended. Through this small gesture, we hope to express our gratitude for their generosity.

I’ve also written to Mr. Toms. I hope to learn where he went to elementary school. If I do, we will excitedly donate books to a classroom of students at that school. While he now lives many miles away, his generosity is spreading across The District.

Inspired by his gift, we’ll keep giving.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

PS – If there is someone you’d like to honor with a book donation, please email us at the address listed at the bottom of this page.

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Thank You.

On this first day of 2014, we want to say thank you to all who supported our work during 2013. It was an incredible year, and we’re very proud of all we accomplished. When Reach started, the budget for our first year was $96,000. We served 0 students in that first year.

This  year, we will use our operating budget of $454,800 to serve 130 DC students. For the honor of serving those kids, we thank you. Through the generosity of a growing community of supporters, we raised over $50,000 from individual donors in December. Due to your generosity, we will be donating 1,000 of our teen-authored children’s books to programs serving kids in DC. Because of you, our teens will be able to inspire young readers and future writers throughout the city.

And, while those donations honored our tutors and students, they were also given in honor and memory of many others.

Gifts were given in honor of Craig Auster, Ed Bell, John Brophy, Laura Feiveson & Jaya Mehta, Tom Florence, Josh Friedman & Menaka Kalaskar, Donna Hecker, Erica Matson, Tom Vasquez, Gary Wingo.

Additionally, gifts were given in memory of Jack Miller Moore and Gertrude & Daniel Taylor.

Thank you for your support. Thank you for believing in our tutors and students. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to share their talents with the world.

Happy New Year!

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Pride: 13 from ’13

At Reach, 2013 was a year of hard work and significant progress. As the year comes to an end, we reflected on 13 things that made us proud in 2013 (in no particular order). We hope you’ll join us in celebrating these accomplishments and continuing to push for even more in 2014.

1) We partnered with Stone Soup Films to create a short film that allowed others to meet the tutors we’re honored to work with each day.Jada

2) Last winter, Jada (right) quit. By the spring, we convinced her to come back and her relationship with her student was growing stronger. This fall, she earned a promotion to Lead Tutor. When we don’t quit, neither do they.

3) This fall, we launched a new site in partnership with Ballou Senior High School and Simon Elementary School. Our tutors at Perry Street Prep also started serving a second elementary school site at Burroughs Education Campus.

IMG_71394) We published four children’s books. We got great reviews, and our kids have been repeatedly asked for autographs. But, more than anything, we enjoyed watching Za’Metria’s reaction when a young reader told her The Gloomy Light was her favorite book to read at bedtime.

5) Last spring, some car trouble led to our staff being late to a tutoring session at Perry Street Prep. When the session began, we received a call from Dana: “Hey, just letting you know that no adults are here. We have the kids reading, and we’re planning to practice summarizing. Is there anything else you’d like us to do?” That’s leadership.Reading

6) We’ve watched teenagers fall in love with reading. Last spring, we read Tattoos on the Heart. Over the summer, the teens dug into Unlikely Brothers and Things Fall Apart. And now, we’re reading Buck. We even have a few young people that have started making regular visits to the library!

7) We get to be impressed and surprised by the care and maturity our tutors show on a regular basis. For example, check out the surprise that Sasha’s grandmother received when she read one of our children’s books, The Airplane Effect.

8) OIMG954439ur tutors continue to build incredibly strong relationships with their students. We see this in scenes like this one, when Leonard didn’t want to say goodbye to Rashaan at the end of the school year.

9) We were thrilled to be included in the 2013 Catalogue for Philanthropy, a publication that recognizes the best small nonprofits in the DC region. Soon after receiving recognition from CfP, we learned that we had been named the winner of the 2013 Lehrman Foundation Impact Award.

10) Zorita conquered her fear of stage fright to represent Free Minds Book Club at our first ever philanthropy competition. Summer program participants competed to win $2,500 in grant funding for local organizations. With Zorita leading the way, her team secured first prize, $1,250 for Free Minds! She stepped up to the challenge once again when Mr. Mark asked her to introduce him at the premiere of our Stone Soup Film.Joyce Samira

11) This summer, Joyce was the first of our alumni to be accepted to Urban Alliance, DC’s most competitive high school internship program. She was quickly followed by both Daquan and Chyna who joined the program this fall.

Kaya Lit Carnival12) We launched a Literacy Carnival that allowed our tutors to share their talents with a larger student population. Joined by special guest readers, like DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and supported by First Book DC, we had a great day of literacy-based fun!

13) More than anything, we’re proud of the way our tutors show up. Life isn’t always easy, but for a few hours each week, they put themselves second. During tutoring sessions, it’s about the kids. And that, my friends, is beautiful.




Proud of us? Consider making a year-end contribution today!

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Transparency & Authenticity

Guest Post:
Jusna Perrin, Program Associate for Evaluation & Improvement

Last night, at my first official meeting as a board member for the Urban Education Leadership Internship Program, I kicked-off the meeting telling my leadership story:

Dear 13-year old Jusna,

As Rudy Francisco said, “There will be days when you feel like a tablespoon of oil inside of an ocean. You will find it difficult to blend in because you just feel so different.” But realize: Experience speaks higher volumes than advice. You would not be where you are today without your ability to find comfort in the discomfort. And never forget: empathy and honesty are not signs of weakness, but instead are enablers of transparency and growth.

I went on to discuss my role here at Reach – I’m building the system to evaluate our program from the ground up. I wrote about how it’ll never feel comfortable to communicate to a 9th  grade tutor that they read on a 3rd  grade level. I emphasized that, with such transparency, one must frame this discussion in the language of potential to generate effort and motivation.

So now I see kids like Eric* – reading at a 4th  grade level when we met him – who can now proudly say he’s on the honor roll, earning all As and Bs. Or Shane, who swore up and down that there was no way an Honor’s English kid could be reading at a 5th  grade level. But, after many one-on-one moments, he now knows that the ball’s in his court. That yes, the system is broken, but, at the same time, he has the power to change it. Our transparent, positive relationships create engagement. Using this engagement to cultivate the potential in people changes lives.

I ended my own story discussing the need for honesty (from others and myself) for my own development. I needed to see my shortcomings as learning opportunities instead of permanent character flaws.

The following day, Reach received first quarter report cards for this year’s cohort. The first name that popped up was one of our new 9th  grade students, a kid who we have struggled to help feel a part of the Reach family. In our internal assessment, he reads at a 3rd  grade level. His report card says he’s Below Basic on DC CAS. His English grade? A solid B.

My initial reaction was frustration with the system. How could this kid possibly be getting a B in English when his reading skills are so limited? I also felt like a hypocrite – less than 24 hours prior, I was publicly praising honor roll students who, I know, aren’t as prepared as their report cards may indicate.

“Why aren’t we being HONEST?” I asked Mark.

Knee-jerk reactions weren’t part of my leadership story.

After a quick conversation, I came to a very poignant realization: No one ever said honor roll is the goal. Reach and its staff would not be living up to our values if this was what we believed. If we accept honor roll as success, then we simply aren’t being honest about the fundamental issues we aim to attack.

We praise effort and celebrate incremental growth. Never have we accepted report card grades as some sort of permanent stamp of success. As many of you know, we strive to develop confident grade-level readers and capable leaders. In this effort, we see our role as a community of educators who recognize and cultivate the potential in each of the kids we serve – no matter how arduous that endeavor may be.

Be proud, but know the work is not done.

It’s important to simultaneously cheer success and demand better. As my previous leadership examples would illustrate, empathy and honesty are not signs of weakness, but instead are enablers of transparency and growth. Yet we forfeit honesty’s transformative potential when we discard empathy and authenticity in our conversations with kids.

So without a doubt, it’s legitimate to celebrate the work it took for some of our kids to earn honor roll (even if that reflects classroom cooperation more than competence).

But, in no way is the work we (or they) do done.


* All names have been changed.

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When Jusna Cursed…

“That’s bullshit.”

From my mouth, the words would have been unsurprising. I curse liberally, though I try to hold back in front of our tutors and students. Jusna (Reach’s Program Associate for Evaluation & Improvment), on the other hand, never curses. She is the kindest and gentlest person I know. She was, very clearly, angry.

I had just explained to Jusna that we had not been awarded a major grant. We had been named a finalist for the prize – a process that involved an interview led by the foundation’s board and a site visit. Having designed our efforts to assess and communicate impact, Jusna was particularly frustrated by the foundation’s reasoning.

To the foundation’s credit, when I asked why we had not been chosen, I was given an honest answer. First, some board members felt I was a bit too self-assured; they weren’t sure I was open to learning. While I didn’t agree, I felt they had every right to make a decision based on that feeling. Second, they had a problem with our retention rates. The second reason was more troubling to me.

Reach’s retention rate, defined as the number of students accepted into the program that complete one full year, is approximately 60%. Every potential tutor that we accept matters to us. We chase them. We attempt to persuade them to stay with us. We pester them. Each and every one counts. This is our effort to live up to one of our stated values, intentionally steering toward the most challenging work. Legitimate life circumstances sometimes lead a tutor to leave the program; that doesn’t mean that young person counts any less.

Many programs establish a baseline at some point in October or November. If the kid makes it to some agreed upon date in the fall, then they count. If we had made that decision, our retention rate would have been approximately 85%. But, the real data helps us to know we must improve our onboarding process. The real data helps us get better. The real data honors the importance of each kid we invite to join our program.

DC’s graduation rate hovers around 60%. So, to this particular foundation, our 60% retention rate was unimpressive. I tried to explain that our 60% came from the district’s 40%. We recruited those students most likely to leave school. When the foundation approached another one of our funders – part of the due diligence process – they were told, “You should be excited he’s telling you 60%. That means he’s actually telling the truth. I hear 90% and 100% all day. That means nothing to me. 60% means he’s paying attention and trying to get better.”

None of it matters now. The decision has been made. But, in the end, it must be discussed. If the foundation community requires data, they must fund it. And, if the foundation community refuses to contextualize data, then we’ll be left serving only those who will produce the numbers that make the funders happy.

Father Gregory Boyle said, “Funders sometimes say, ‘We don’t fund efforts, we fund outcomes.’ We all hear this and think how sensible, practical, realistic, hard-nosed, and clear-eyed it is. But…without wanting to, we sometimes allow our preference for the poor to morph into a preference for the well-behaved and most likely to succeed…If success is our engine, we sidestep the difficult and the belligerent.  Failure and death become insurmountable.”

And that, my friends, is bullshit.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Note: My apologies if you’re offended by the language used in this post. We felt it important to reflect the passion with which we do this work.

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3 Ways You Can Help Today

Our offices are located on Capitol Hill. Things are a bit quiet around here these days. If you’re one of the many government employees with a little extra time on your hands, here are three ways you can help Reach right now:

1) Spread the word about our books! We’ve just released four beautiful, teen-authored children’s books. Now we want the world to know. Tell your friends, write to your favorite blog, call your friend that works at a magazine. Only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color. Let’s get creative about getting these stories, with diverse characters, into the hands of those students who rarely get to see themselves in books. We’re happy to work directly with those interested in bulk purchases or classroom set donations.

2) Introduce us to three of your friends that work in the DC corporate community. Because our model is not volunteer driven, we’ve had some trouble engaging DC’s corporate community. You, however, can get us on their radar. Share our new film and help us make new connections. It doesn’t matter if your friend isn’t in the corner office – we’re just trying to get in the door! Send your friend an email and copy mark@reachincorporated.org so I can follow up about ways we might be able to involve them in our growing work.

3) Got a truck and some muscles? On Friday afternoon, we’ll be delivering cabinets and books to two of our program sites. I could use an extra set of hands connected to some strong arms. If you have a truck, even better (though, if necessary, we can rent the truck)! You would be needed from 2:30 – 4:30pm on Friday.

Even a single new introduction is valuable to Reach. Please consider turning this government impasse into an opportunity for community impact.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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