In a statement released Wednesday morning, Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said, “Reach stood out among the 159 applications we received this year with its forward-thinking approach to engagement in reading and the social world. We think its initiatives can produce significant results in Washington and in other communities across the country.”
Reach has 90 teenage tutors and 90 grade-school students in five Washington area schools and community centers. Hecker said he expects to have 250 tutors and 250 students by fall 2017.
Unlike Teach for America, which accepts only the highest-achieving college students to work as teachers, Reach seeks out struggling high school students. Some live in shelters; others are in foster care; most get free lunch at school because their family income is low. But no matter what their challenges, Reach commits to train them as tutors, and in return, the teens commit to the program. “We trust teenagers with real responsibility for real outcomes that matter,” Hecker said during a TED talk last year. The tutors start at $80 a month and can earn as much as $120 a month.
The program has several ingenious elements.
Forcing academically weak teenagers into special classes to improve their reading skills can be stigmatizing and discouraging, whereas empowering them as teachers gives them a sense of responsibility. Not only do the teens respond positively to that kind of investment, but the program allows them to work on elementary school material that they might otherwise feel embarrassed to use.
Hecker says Reach tutors and students have demonstrated dramatic improvement. By the time they reach 11th grade, 75 percent of the tutors are reading at or above grade level. And the students they teach show one to two grade levels of improvement for every year they spend in the program.
When the tutors noticed that the books they were using didn’t always reflect their lives or the lives of their young students, Reach developed another innovative program: During the summer months, the high school tutors write their own children’s books. Reach has now sold and distributed several thousand copies of nine books, turning their tutors into published authors. “They serve as very real role models for kids who don’t ordinarily think of kids as authors,” Hecker says. “We think the diversity of the authors and the types of stories they tell become really valued.”
This morning, the National Book Foundation also named four organizations for honorable mentions for the Innovations in Reading Prize:
• The African Poetry Book Fund, in Lincoln, Neb., promotes African poets by mentoring, editing and publishing emerging African writers.
• Call Me Ishmael, in New York, maintains a Web site that compiles anonymous voicemail messages about people’s favorite books.
• Lambda Literary, in Los Angeles, promotes LGBTQ literature with education programs, a literary review and annual awards.
• Motion poems, in Minneapolis, is a video production company that creates films based on poems.