Interview with Mark Hecker, Founder of Reach Incorporated

February 2016



Mark Hecker is the founder of Reach Incorporated, winner of the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.

National Book Foundation: Where did the idea for the program come from?

Mark Hecker:  My background is in social work, and I worked in the foster care system. I had the experience of working with a number of really talented young people that, for many reasons – most related to some kind of trauma – had fallen behind in school. Over and over, I found that schools really didn’t have resources available that help high schoolers catch up. So it started with this idea of how we can get high schoolers invested in reading when, for many reasons, they often hate it?

I knew through doing research that high school students specifically improve at reading when they get to practice at their level. In D.C., what we were finding was that all these kids were getting to high school and reading at an elementary school level. My clinical background told me that, and I always say this in a joking way, if you hand a fifteen-year-old a Dr. Seuss book, they’re going to feel like you’re calling them stupid and they’re not interested.

So the idea we came up with was to hand them a Dr. Seuss book and a seven-year-old to read it to, and it dramatically changes the experience of reading that Dr. Seuss book. We can’t just get them to read elementary school material.  We need to get them to read elementary school material to elementary school kids to reframe the experience of reading for them. That’s really where the idea started.

Photo from reach inc

NBF: How do you see your program expanding in the future?

MH: We look at it in two stages. Our plan is to grow about two and a half times in the next two and a half years. We served about 180 kids in this school year that’s wrapping up now and our plan is to serve 500 by the fall of 2017. That’s 250 tutors and 250 students in our program. I think that’s getting to the size where we’re going to find what it is that makes us special and where we can grow.

We’ll definitely continue to serve D.C. The problem here is significant; we’re not addressing enough of the problem now and I don’t think we’ll be addressing enough of the problem in three years, or as much of the problem as we’d like to.

The second prong is how do we respond to the demand that already exists to replicate what we do. I’ve probably heard already from 30-40 different jurisdictions (nonprofit organizations, school officials, and towns) that are interested in working with Reach and replicating our programs in new places. And because we feel that the relationships that we build are so essential for what we do, we’re just not there yet. We’re not yet considering moving into any other jurisdictions, but when we do, we will focus on values alignment and a commitment to ongoing training and support to ensure success.

So I think, at the end of our current strategic plan, the question that we will be prepared to answer is how does Reach grow if it decides to grow beyond D.C.?  Do we partner with already established nonprofits that we consider great? Or – and I don’t see this in our future – do we sell our curriculum and walk away? I think it’s more likely we’ll do some sort of licensing agreement where we would provide some training and support along the way, but we see that as the next stage of growth.


NBF: It seems great that you’re getting so much support from so many other jurisdictions.

MH: Yeah, I think there’s a really desperate desire for something that’s effective with high school students who are struggling with reading especially in the context of more and more standardized education. I think a lot of teachers at a lot of schools just feel lost. There are not a lot of people having success in part because there are not a lot of programs available. Those programs tend to be obviously remedial, which means the kids don’t want to participate in them. I think that people feel we’ve grabbed onto something that’s worth paying attention to. I don’t think they yet understand how difficult what we do is and how hard the work is and some of the values related to the stuff we do.

One of the most important [aspects of Reach Incorporated is] you can’t be thrown out of our program. So it’s a commitment – that we’re patient, that we work with kids for multiple years. We consider the relationship unconditional. That stuff is just as important to our success as the curriculum is, so when we do grow, it will be important to work with organizations that understand that.


NBF: Reach Incorporated encourages mutual learning to take place between the tutor and the student, as opposed to the traditional top-down hierarchy. How does this reciprocity contribute to the success of the program?

MH: There are a couple of ways. One, our students like their teenage tutors more than they would like working with me. [Laughs.] They think that the teenagers are just the coolest people in the world. They also get one-on-one attention.

On a very basic level, the reason it [works so well] is that the little kids get individual attention. They love that the attention is from a peer tutor from their community. And the older kids feel like what they’re doing is important. When they walk into our program, instead of feeling like a bad reader who has to work on something that they don’t feel good at, they just get tackled by a seven-year-old who wants to sit with them and read. The learning that happens does become secondary [to that], but it’s the driving force of what we do.


NBF: Which students’ stories from the program have surprised you most?

MH: There are a lot of them. I think every teacher has experiences of feeling running head first into a wall over and over.

There’s a young lady named Ashley from Ballou High School, which is one of our rougher schools. A year and three-quarters into our program, I went up to one of our staff members and said, “I need you to deal with Ashley.” I was getting into my own feelings and I was just angry. The key here is that we focus on being sure that every student has positive relationships with someone from the organization. In this case, when I grew frustrated, I knew it was important for me to step away for a minute.

Ashley had a strong relationship with one of our instructors, Ms. Sully, and she began to focus more on school. We remain positive, no matter what, to help our kids see their potential. Coming out of that, she’s shown some real improvement. During the third quarter, she won a Most Improved Award from her school.

I think this story illustrates the fact that we have to always believe in kids, and we need to be aware enough to know when our feelings get in the way of our ability to do the job.There’s a year and a half of work that feels thankless, and to see a kid flip that switch and get there when it would have been very easy to give up long before…we have to challenge ourselves sometimes to live our values. Those are very rewarding moments.

Two summers ago, [because of the lack of] diversity in children’s literature, we started publishing our own books. We’ve now published nine books written by teenagers and we’ve had a couple opportunities for events where authors go and read to kids. I was shocked by how meaningful it [was] for a kid at an elementary school to see a teenager from their community who went to their school and is now a published author. Those were really special moments.

We did [a reading] a couple weeks ago where we had teachers coming up with copies of those books and asking their own former students for autographs. These are students that likely were not these teachers’ favorite students. To see that reframe of what these kids can do — I was a little surprised with how hard that hit me. I don’t think we realized at the beginning the import of the work we do around what usually gets called “narrative change.” It’s this idea of getting [teachers and other adults] to see these kids differently because they’re generally seen as the troublemakers. [At Reach Incorporated,] we’re really focused on all that the kids have to offer, and that can be very powerful.

Photo from reach inc

NBF: We were looking through some of the books the teenagers published. Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure and One Lonely Camel would definitely help many seven-year-olds out.

MH:  Yeah, we had a reading last week with Litzi, one of the authors of Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure. Her younger brother Joey was one of the Reach students, and the authors read to the entire student body. It was one of those moments where he was the coolest kid in school because that was his sister and he got to go up and get his book signed by her.

When we met Litzi, she was always a pretty solid student, but she literally did not speak. She would not respond if you talked to her directly. And she now is headed out to the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer as part of a team that won a public speaking challenge. The turnaround you see in moments like that is really, really cool.


NBF: What more can you tell us about the books the tutors write?

MH: The whole premise behind Reach is instead of looking at these kids as problems, let’s look at them as assets.  We we were working really hard to find good, diverse books – I feel like I know most of them at this point, but there are just not enough. And for us, there was just a moment where we said, “Well, we believe in these kids, and we notice this new problem related to our work. Why don’t we look at them as the ones that can solve this problem, too?”

It became part of our summer program to have the teens write new books to better reflect the realities of their world. We talk about diverse books a lot these days, but it’s not just about the color of the characters, it’s about their experiences. So with the ones you mentioned (Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure and One Lonely Camel), there’s talk of family dysfunction, there’s being the new kid at school, there’s being abandoned by your family, there’s dealing with death. We have one book that takes place in a shelter. Those things are real to our kids, and there are just not many books about those things.

Using the examples you just mentioned, One Lonely Camel has a camel who’s a rapper. His best friend is Tunechi, which is a nickname of Lil Wayne. And our kids know that. They understand that cultural marker. You and I can both imagine a book called Khalil’s Magical Adventure, but the fact that it’s called Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure – it speaks to the community that we work with in a different way. It’s been fun to see them not only step up as role models and do readings in the community, but to really contribute to a problem and, again, to change people’s minds.

When we first published the books, part of the reaction was, “Cute, I’m sure your students will like those.” What’s been fascinating is to watch the families more privileged than those, rich white folks, all of a sudden saying, “You know what? This book is really good!” Yeah, I know it’s really good! [Laughs.]

Photo from reach inc

NBF: What obstacles did you face in creating this program?

MH: The work is hard and I [won’t] sugar coat that. So when we say things like, “We don’t throw kids out of our program,” the difficulty of living that is real.

We don’t meet our kids before we hire them. At each of our schools, we get at least twice as many applicants as we have spots in the program. We simply don’t have the ability to interview all those kids. This means we’re making decisions based on applications and school data. For that reason, we don’t always know what other factors might come into play. We look at that as a mostly good thing. We want to serve those students with significant need, not those that can do the best in an interview.

We select them based off a bunch of factors, but when we walk into a classroom at the beginning of ninth grade and three of our tutors are demonstrably pregnant, how do we support those kids? What do we do when the kid gets suspended from school for a long period of time? What do we do when kids get arrested? There’s lots of things we deal with.

Again, I come from a social work background and there was a lot that we saw that I was comfortable with because I was from that world. But my staff, who came more from the world of education, didn’t feel equipped to handle all those things, so that’s been a challenge. I think we’re better at it, but it’s a challenge in education in general, especially in urban communities. So many of our kids are coming from backgrounds of chronic stress and trauma that we need to find ways to better prepare instructors to deal with that.

There are also issues about  perceptions of our kids and whether people believe they can do a good job both as tutors and as authors. We, at this point, have been lucky enough to have pretty solid data that shows what they’re able to do. But at the beginning, we had to prove it because people weren’t willing to trust teenagers and believe that they could do it.

We live in a world, in the education space, where there’s a focus on how quickly you can grow an idea and how you can scale it. It’s one of my least favorite words. Relationships aren’t really scalable. How do you end up growing a program that’s highly effective? We do want to serve more kids, but we find ourselves constantly in this battle about how fast we can reasonably grow while maintaining the quality we’ve established.

I’d rather do a really good job with a thousand kids in ten years than get to a thousand kids in five years but do half the quality work. I think a lot of education programs have grown big and have lost their quality along the way, and we’re trying to do that differently. We’re trying to grow in an appropriate way, but it constantly feels like we’re fighting that battle.  When we say we don’t want to “scale,” we’re not just interested in serving as many kids as we can as soon as we can, people sometimes roll their eyes and say, “Oh, you’re one of those cute nonprofits that’s not ready to make hard decisions.” And that’s frustrating.

We have been able to find resources and build a family of supporters and a community that really believes in us. But that tension of [how to grow is real for us].  We’re getting there, but that’s been a real challenge.