Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.
This week’s spotlight: all things education.
“I’m a firm believer that we all do better when someone gives us responsibility for something we care about,” says Mark Hecker, founder of the Washington, DC-area educational nonprofit, Reach Incorporated.
That makes sense for everyone, but especially for teens. When they’re turned on to something they care about, they’re unstoppable. Reach taps into this power by hiring and training high school-aged tutors to help elementary school students get better at reading.
When the goal is improved reading proficiency, the responsibility is real and the stakes are high. High school students totally get this—especially in a school district where 85 percent of ninth graders read below grade level. Many of Reach’s tutors have reading challenges of their own and understand where their kids are coming from.
This kind of tutoring program benefits both tutors and students: teens are given leadership experience, professional literacy training, and as much disposable income as they would make working in a fast food joint. Younger students are given the chance to work with a cool older kid who is totally invested in their success. Everyone ends up learning a ton.
Reach’s founder Mark is a former social worker who worked with teens in foster care and juvenile detention. He believes that every kid is teachable, but thinks that school systems where students are expelled and suspended for bad behavior—and clustered into groups based on standardized test results—aren’t doing a good job of this. If kids are written off or ignored for any reason, they can slip through the cracks.
To remedy this, Reach has practiced a “no one gets kicked out” policy since their start in 2010. They’ve worked with over 90 tutors over three years and have seen improved reading and comprehension abilities in nearly all of those students.
This year, they expect to serve 75 tutors and 75 students. Despite their growing success, getting Reach off the ground was about as easy as finding a pot of gold at the end of a reading rainbow.
Mark talked with us about some of his biggest challenges along the way:
- Obstacle: Lack of business and nonprofit development knowledge
Mark didn’t have a strong project management or business development background when he got the idea for Reach. He figured that enrolling in a school leadership graduate program at Harvard would give him a good foundation to work from, but found that much of his education was focused on higher level theories and less on the nitty-gritty details of how to actually run an organization.
“I took a finances course and we were evaluating a decision that the University of California had to make a few years ago and I’m like, Well I’m going to have $30 next year—what should I do with those $30? Grad school wasn’t dealing with that.”
Solution: Mark says he learned the most about running an organization by just jumping in and giving it a try. He found that mentor relationships and the help of a professional coach also helped him enormously in the process.
“I sought out, pretty intentionally, leaders of organizations that I respect so that I could ask questions of people on a very basic level when things come up.”
Makes sense that the founder of an organization that’s all about mentors would have a few himself, right?
- Obstacle: Drain on emotional energy
Even though he had good support from his mentors, Mark was basically alone in getting Reach off the ground for the first few years.
“Starting an organization is by far the loneliest thing I’ve ever done and it is just really hard,” he says.
Mark faced even more challenges as he tried to find the balance between networking, cheerleading, and saving time for himself to recharge.
“I’m a pretty strong introvert, so making my profession talking to people and networking and convincing them that this idea is worth building… I collapse on my couch a lot.”
Solution: Mark gets energy from the successes of his kids and also from the success of the organization overall. “I admit to being hugely excited and feeling very validated about the fact that it’s actually working.”
- Obstacle: Confronting people’s assumptions about the model
When people can’t openly talk about injustice in the educational system, it’s hard to get the conversation moving in that direction.
“The most challenging thing about our model for most people is that they really have trouble trusting an underperforming teenager to work with a little kid and do a good job,” he says. “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.”
Solution: To combat this, Reach strives to be as transparent as possible. They’re honest about what they do and who they work with in hopes of starting a different kind of conversation about what’s effective—and what isn’t—when it comes to student success.
“The most powerful discussion in education right now, in my mind, centers on the things we’re refusing to say,” Mark says. “At Reach, we work to surface some of those things very intentionally.”
Are you interested in learning more about Mark’s model and potentially bringing it to your area? Connect with Mark on Idealist.