Mark Hecker is the founder and executive director of Reach Incorporated. By recruiting, training, and paying struggling high school readers to tutor in elementary schools, Reach Incorporated builds foundational literacy skills on both ends of the public school spectrum. The nonprofit’s motto is “Confident Readers, Capable Leaders.” Reach Incorporated focuses on public schools in Washington, DC.

 Our Conversation with Mark Hecker

Duke I&E: How did your undergraduate experiences at Duke shape you? Are you still connected to the university?

MH: For me, Duke was a great place to learn about service and leadership. As an undergraduate student, I volunteered in various settings, including Durham Public Schools and a state mental hospital. This experience significantly influenced my academic experience, pushing me to become more interested in the relationship between academic achievement and the personal relevance of the curriculum. While I still believe Duke must add an education major, I was able to begin exploring my interests through the Program in Education during my time as a Psychology major.

Though my time in the classroom was valuable, my time outside the classroom was where I developed leadership skills that continue to serve me today. I was the Music Director of the Pitchforks, Duke’s oldest a cappella group, and the President of Mirecourt, a co-ed selective house. Through these positions, I learned to create a vision, develop plans, lead organizational improvement, and make tough decisions. As a member of the Pitchforks, I was lucky to work with our faculty advisor, Dr. Benjamin Ward, whose leadership style continues to influence me today.

Since graduation, I remain connected to Duke in many ways. I have returned to speak in classes, specifically Dr. Adam Hollowell’s class exploring issues of poverty and justice. Additionally, I have enjoyed talking with Matt Nash of SEAD (Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke) about the potential role of entrepreneurship on Duke’s campus. Lastly, I continue to write at least one letter per year advocating for the addition of a major in Education. As the university continues to build strong partnerships with organizations like KIPP and Teach for America, I find it embarrassing that we don’t give proper respect to the study of educational reform movements, policy, and research.

Duke I&E: Reach Incorporated focuses on engaging and motivating its high school tutors; they see themselves not so much as participants in a tutoring program but rather as leaders with personal responsibility to the younger students they work with. Can you explain why this is a key element of Reach’s program?

MH: Students only improve academic skills when they practice at or just above their current skill level. Unfortunately, schools generally provide remediation that is both boring and stigmatizing. Reach flips that model on its head. When you think about it, it’s rather intuitive.

Imagine a 14-year-old reading at a third-grade level. If you sat down with that student and handed him a Dr. Seuss book, he immediately feels a certain way about the experience. Although he knows his own reading challenges, reading that book with a tutor or teacher involves allowing someone else access to this significant insecurity. The adolescent ego is fragile, and this process would be really challenging. However, if you imagine giving that same 14-year-old the Dr. Seuss book and a 7-year-old who wants to read it, the entire experience changes. When given responsibility for a younger student, he feels no embarrassment reading the book and he feels the warmth of a growing relationship with a student who requires support.

It’s important to note that simply handing the book and the child to a teenager isn’t enough. For every tutoring session we hold, the tutors go through a training session. But in these sessions, teaching still sets the context. Instead of asking, “Are there any words you didn’t understand?” we can ask, “What words do you think might challenge your students?” This makes a big difference.

Adolescents are inherently social. And, like the rest of us, they like to participate in activities that build on strengths and don’t require the constant experience of failure. Through this model, we’ve been able to create industry-leading reading growth for both the teens and their students. The young students receive individual attention and mentoring, while the older students receive level-appropriate content and an authentic source of motivation. They work hard because they care about their students. Reading simply becomes the mechanism through which they care, and that’s why it works.

Duke I&E: Reach Incorporated has a summer program where the tutors write and publish children’s books. Can you tell us more about this program? (In browsing the books on Reach’s website, I was curious if the tutors illustrate the books as well?)

MH: Reach believes strongly in the idea that teens can solve their communities’ most challenging problems. As reading tutors, our teens regularly work with children’s literature. Through their work, they realized that very few of the stories reflect their realities. So it seemed almost natural that we would address that issue-the significant lack of diversity in children’s literature-by writing new books.

We partnered with Kathy Crutcher (Trinity ’00), a creative writing coach and the founder of Shout Mouse Press, to help guide our teens through the writing process. Kathy brought in two illustrators, both art students at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A quote from Kathy: “In one story, One Lonely Camel, Tunechi the moonwalking, dreadlock-wearing, charismatic hippo convinces Larry, a shy but talented rapping camel, to overcome his fears and share his vulnerable rhymes-about losing his family, about loneliness, about growing up too quickly-in the annual zoo talent show. The result? Empathy from his fellow animals. These authors demonstrated tremendous imagination, yes; but more importantly, they demonstrated courage and connection by putting their own lives on the page.”

This was part of a summer that also involved a research and presentation project in which our teens gave away $2,500 to local charities. In the end, our work is about creating opportunities through which teens can build academic skills by participating in activities they care about deeply. When given the opportunity to contribute to their communities in a meaningful way, they will thrive. The tutoring, the books, and the philanthropy project all point toward this belief in their ability to be real changemakers.

Duke I&E: The students in Reach’s first cohort of tutors are currently high school seniors. What kinds of progress have they shown during their years in the program? Can you share a success story or two?

MH: In the communities we serve, the graduation rate hovers between 50 and 60 percent. Of the 16 teens in our first cohort, 14 are on track to complete high school this spring. Three of those 16 are currently enrolled in internships through Urban Alliance, D.C.’s most competitive high school internship program. College is in the future for almost all of them.

Our average tutor enters ninth grade reading between a fourth and sixth grade level. If they complete all three years in our program, it is highly likely that they leave our program as grade-level readers (a strong predictor of post-secondary success).

I consider so many of them success stories. Since we recruit those teens with the most significant challenges, they’ve dealt with foster care, family trauma, homelessness, and many other issues. But, they keep showing up.

Daquan, a quiet kid with no college aspirations when we met him, is currently trying to decide between the four colleges that have accepted him. Joyce is currently interning at Children’s National Medical Center and plans for college and a career as a nurse.

And the cohorts following that first one are on track for similar success. Being a tutor gives these teens a different view of themselves, which creates pretty significant impacts both in our program and in the rest of their lives.

You can see more in this short video.

Duke I&E: You published a thought-provoking article, “Falling for the New Language of Social Good”, in which you argued that the social good sector was fetishizing business- and market-based solutions that in turn degraded the pure charity of the nonprofit sector. The post concluded:

“The final truth is this: If I were to focus on efficiency and sustainability as priorities, a central tenet in the business-focused definition of social enterprise, I would no longer serve my kids. They’re too inefficient. They’re too difficult. They’re too resource-intensive. They’re the least likely to succeed. But you know what else they are? My kids. Our kids. The future of our community.”

How has the conversation evolved in the two years since the article was published?

MH: I think things have gotten worse. We’ve conflated the idea of sustainability with those of revenue generation and efficiency. Discussions of justice have been muted by the focus on market-based solutions. The idea of scale, as it’s currently discussed, ignores the political and structural challenges to changing the systems of oppression that create injustice. We should all be obsessed with solving the world’s most challenging problems; however, our obsession with the ideas of entrepreneurship simply helps a few and widens our current gaps.

In my field, education, talks of efficiency are not even based in reality. There is no high-poverty community in a major city that has been successful in eliminating the education debt (what some people call the achievement gap). So, frankly, we have no idea what it costs. When that’s the case, talking about efficiency is simply talking about doing things as cheaply as possible.

Some issues partner nicely with market-based solutions. Education is not one of those issues. Our failures in education have never been about inefficiency. Our issues in education have been about economic injustice, lack of investment, and segregation (first racial, now economic). Our system is built to maintain order and perpetuate economic privilege, and it continues to do just that. Solutions to these problems must be built on community ownership of the problem, trust in the students involved, and a willingness to transition to a real meritocracy. These issues involve politics and people, not models and markets.

To learn more about Reach Incorporated, visit its website.

To read about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.

By Denise Prickett

Logo for Reach Incorporated