Correction: Perry Street Prep teacher Sarah Berg was misidentified in an earlier version of this column.

At first blush, it sounds like a recipe for disaster: Take kids who need to improve their reading skills and have them tutor other kids who have trouble reading. But that’s exactly what goes on twice a week at Perry Street Prep, a pre-K-to-12th-grade public charter school in Northeast Washington’s Woodridge neighborhood.

“There are very few kids who don’t need this,” Mark Hecker told me in the hallway outside a third-grade classroom last week.

Mark is the founder and executive director of Reach Inc., a nonprofit tutoring program that’s halfway through the second year of trying out his crazy idea.

Educators know that one-on-one tutoring can help younger students who are struggling to read. “Most often it’s taking really high-performing kids and putting them with low-performing kids,” Mark says. “It’s a good program for the younger kids. It’s college application material for the older kids.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Mark wondered why both sides of the equation couldn’t benefit the same way. Could a high-schooler get as much academically out of the relationship as a kid in elementary school? And so Reach takes second- and third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level and pairs them with ninth- and 10th-graders who are in the same boat.

Chivaune Shorts, 14, a 9th grader at Perry Street Prep in Northeast. She tutors second and third graders in reading as part of a program by Reach Inc. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

It isn’t hard to find participants. About 80 percent of D.C. schoolchildren can’t read at grade level.

“Most remedial programs are pretty stigmatizing,” Mark said. With Reach, though, the older kids have a sudden responsibility.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, tutors work with Reach’s small staff — two full-timers and two part-timers — to prepare lesson plans and identify words that their charges may have trouble with. (A recent book was “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. You can bet that “truffula” was circled.) On Tuesdays and Thursdays the mentors and mentees pair up for an hour.

In addition to its Perry Street program, Reach has Eastern High students tutoring at Payne Elementary. About 80 kids from the three schools take part.

“I don’t think they look at it as ‘I’m going to get some tutoring,’” Mark said of the high school students. “They think of themselves as workers, not participants, which I think in terms of stigma is helpful.”

Ah, workers. That’s the interesting twist. The tutors are paid $50 a week. If they’re late or miss a day, their pay is docked.

What I like about Reach is that it illustrates an old truism: If you’re going to teach something, you’d better learn it yourself first.

“These are kids who’ve never been asked to take a leadership role,” Mark said. It’s in its early days yet, but he says it’s working. Tutors have increased their GPAs , and none of them have dropped out of school.

Sarah Berg, the Perry Street third-grade teacher whose classroom we were in, said her pupils come up to her all day, begging to know if it’s a Reach day.

Mark is 30 and has a degree in social work from the University of North Carolina. When he came to Washington seven years ago, he was a social worker in the foster-care system. When he got the idea for Reach, he decided to get a master’s degree in education from Harvard to explore the possibility.

At Perry last week, Chivaune Shorts, a 14-year-old ninth-grader, was helping a lanky third-grader write a paragraph for a work sheet. “Really, it’s to better myself,” Chivaune said when I asked why she signed up for Reach. “I’ve already learned to be patient, because it’s not the easiest job in the world.”

As for the money, Chivaune said she saves some and shares some with her family. Some she donates to the animal shelter. “I’m a real animal fanatic,” she told me. She’s also interested in journalism.

Take it from me, there’s a lot of reading involved in that job.

Music to my ears

I decided to write about Reach because I’m intrigued by it. I’m also helping to raise money for it. On Friday night, my Monkees cover band, the Stepping Stones, is performing at Journopalooza, one of seven acts made up of media musicians who will take to the stage at the Hamilton, at 14th and F streets NW. Proceeds benefit Reach Inc. and Writopia Lab, a nonprofit that holds writing workshops for kids ages 8 to 18. For information and tickets ($20 in advance; $30 at the door), visit

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