Schooling the old school: How Reach, Inc. is creating the next generation of readers and leaders

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.

Rashaan talks about the impact of his experience as a Reach tutor
(video courtesy Stone Soup Films on Vimeo)

The idea

“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.

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Link roundup: Playful libraries, the secret to reading a lot of books, and more

Peep this slideshow from Flavorwire about the most playful libraries in the world:


NYC’s Robin Hood Foundation library.

Read these:

Take action:

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How the Garden Library in Tel Aviv is growing community

Growing up with an Israeli mom and an American dad, I spent my summers in Tel Aviv and the school-year in New York.

South Tel Aviv was not an area we would frequent as a family. Distinguished by its proximity to the Central Bus Station – both the biggest bus terminal in the world and one of the most infamous urban planning disasters – the area is home to asylum seekers and migrant workers, many of whom who are transported there upon arriving to Israel.

Levinsky Park, only a few blocks long and wide, is a short walk away from the bus terminal. Walking home through the park with my sister Yael was consistently emotionally trying. People slept on and around playground constructs – huddled under plastic tarps to seek refuge from the rain – or just spent the day idling due to unemployment.

There is less homelessness now due to selective deportation, though the park remains the heart of the community of migrant workers and asylum seekers.

The communities that share this contentious space are vastly different linguistically, nationally, and culturally, though coexist due to affordability and circumstance. These qualities were what drew us to live in the neighborhood when Yael and I moved to Tel Aviv for our college studies a couple of years ago.

Moreover, these qualities are what inspired ARTEAM, an interdisciplinary art collective, to found the Garden Library in Levinsky Park in 2009, a beacon of hope amidst the often bleak landscape. A self-proclaimed “social-artistic urban community project,” the public library has helped transform the park, stitching together the disjointed, accidental community.

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Photo credits: Tanja Rochow, Levinsky Garden Library, and Yael Krevsky.

Talia Krevsky is a former Idealist team member who went on to actualize her idealistic pursuits in the Middle East, where she recently completed her Masters in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. She is committed to contributing to the transformation, or evolution, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creatively and non-violently.

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What I’m reading this fall to help me change the world

Cozy up with a book this fall (Photo Credit: Madeline Tosh, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Didn’t get the chance to dive into your summer reading list? No problem; it’s already back-to-school season, making now the perfect time to get back into the habit of curling up with a good book. For those who may need a few simple suggestions or inspiration to get started, I’ve gathered a few non-fiction titles that sparked my interest as educational reads.

From tips on how to leverage social media to change the world, to a simple feel good tale mixed with important life lessons, here are a handful of books I plan on checking out:

GirlDrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism by Emma Bee Bernstein and Nona Willis Aronowitz

Two women, Emma Bee Bernstein and Nona Willis Aronowitz, hit the road in 2007 with an important question to ask young women: what matters to them the most. The authors describe the book as a focus on “how young women grapple with the concepts of freedom, equality, joy, ambition, sex, and love—whether they call it “feminism” or not.” GirlDrive shares the stories of 127 very diverse women through vivid photos, profiles, and diary entries, who all have more in common than expected.

You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets to Happiness by Julie Klam

Julie was thirty, single, and working part-time as an insurance clerk, wondering if she would ever meet the man of her dreams. Then she met Otto, her Boston Terrier. Even though she has made a few additions in her life — her husband and daughter —  she was surprised and delighted to find that her dogs had more wisdom to convey to her than she had ever dreamed. And caring for them has made her a better person-and completely opened her heart. You Had Me at Woof is a humorous account of how one woman discovered life’s most important lessons from her canine companions.

The Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Niman

Accepting an offer to head an environmental organizations “hog campaign” took Nicolette on a odyssey into the inner workings of the factory farm industry and helped mold her transformation into a environmental lawyer who takes on the big business farming establishment. The book dives into the an industry gone awry and offers a bit of romance when she’s swept off her feet by a cattle rancher.

Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time by Claire Diaz-Ortiz

In this book, Twitter’s head of corporate innovation and philanthropy, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, shares the same strategies she offers to organizations launching cause-based campaigns through Twitter. Twitter for Good is filled with dynamic examples from initiatives around the world and practical guidelines for harnessing individual activism via Twitter as a force for social change.

Have you read any of these? What other books would you recommend?

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Ideal to real: How to get books onto public buses?

An experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Every morning, Idealist staffer Amy Potthast reads books with her son on their 30-minute bus ride to his preschool.


Experts say you should read with your kids 30 minutes a day. Photo by Khaleeka (Flickr/Creative Commons).

The bus route is long and circuitous, and travels through a mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood full of families. Frequently other parents and their children board the bus, and Amy draws an attentive audience of kids who sit nearby and listen politely to the stories, looking at the book illustrations.

Amy keeps thinking that on long, family-populated buses like theirs, there should be milk crates at the front full of donated books for young riders and their parents to read on 20- to 30-minute bus rides.

She knows it’s a pipe dream, and realizes bus drivers may resist having to keeping up with books on the bus. In chatting with others, the main considerations seem to be:

1. Getting more parents on board in advance, including actual endorsements from and partnerships with groups such as the local PTAs, neighborhood associations, and Head Starts.

2. Working with drivers’ unions to get buy-in and to ensure that implementing such an idea wouldn’t impact the drivers’ ability to drive safely. The local transit authority is very sensitive to driver safety. They’re also careful with their public image.  If books caused children to misbehave in order to hear stories, the plan could backfire.

3. Placing the milk crates in a secure place is important: is there a way to use unused space that doesn’t compromise any seating or safety, and fastening the crates so they can’t slide around?

4. Building a strong grassroots organizing approach, bus-by-bus, with grassroots funding (e.g. private resources), including a pilot on a couple of lines first.

5. Determining policies regarding book borrowing and donation, then educating bus riders about the rules.

Amy would to love see this project grow and succeed. Can you help her with some advice?

  • Do you know of any other projects that place free reading materials on buses?
  • What organizations should be included in getting the project off the ground?
  • Who might fund this kind of project?
  • What resistance should we be prepared to respond to?
  • Do you know of any research that supports the value of reading to kids?
  • What other considerations should Amy keep in mind?

Leave a comment below and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email julia at

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