This program is turning struggling students into leaders by having them teach.

Reading out loud is terrifying for many students.

I’ll never forget the heart palpitations I had in grade school while counting the students and realizing I'd have to read in front of them soon.

Reading to myself was great. But transferring school districts early in my education left me with little understanding of how phonics worked. The fear of struggling to sound out (and even spell) words aloud became the source of my academic nightmares.


Even as an adult, phonics still terrifies me.

And my harrowing experience with reading is all too common. The most recent data on American students reveal that 65% of fourth graders and 64% of eighth-grade students are less than proficient readers, so likely they're dealing with the same struggles I did.

It's a big part of why Reach — a nonprofit in Washington D.C. — is helping high school students become better readers by teaching elementary school students how to read.

Through it’s after-school tutoring program, older D.C. students are given the chance to engage with younger students by helping them with reading and other classwork assignments.

Amazingly, many of the tutors read at a fourth to six-grade level when they enter the program — but by the end, a lot end up like De’Asia who's now an AP student, a published author, tutor, and an aspiring journalist.

Reach’s founder Mark Hecker, a former social worker, began the organization in 2009. He believes that the program it unique because it gives youth, especially youth of color, the chance to be seen as valuable community assets.

"We trust teens to be responsible for things that they care about. And often, that makes education real in a way that the classroom doesn't always," Hecker told NPR.

Allowing these students to serve in such an important role provides an opportunity to rise to the challenge. It’s a sharp contrast to the traditional “dumb it down” curriculum resources that are given to struggling students.

Many participants, like graduating senior Mikala Tardy, stay in the program throughout high school because it had such a positive effect on them.

In general, American students are severely behind when it comes to reading proficiency. Programs like Reach’s that allow them to grow while teaching are invaluable.

With two-thirds of D.C. students below the reading level they should be at when they start high school, they test even lower than the national public-school average.

Reach believes that the responsibility associated with being a role model is a motivator to improve literacy. And, of course, allowing tutors to serve in a mentor-like capacity leads to positive outcomes for the students they tutor, as well. The program highlights the importance of a strength-based approach to solving problems. The staff also fervently believes that every student is capable of growth, and that level of support is a vital part of their success.

Currently, the program has 200 students who have helped 200 other students across 17 sites. During their sessions, both student teacher and student mutually benefit from what Reach considers the five core literacy principles: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

The results speak for themselves — recently, Reach received the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation.

But Reach does much more than helps students boost their reading scores — it fosters relationships that change their lives forever.

In addition to the tutoring, Reach offers summer leadership academy, college prep resources, and even gives teens the chance to be published authors through a partnership with Shout Mouse Press.

As our Department of Education threatens to cut billions of dollars in funding from public schools, programs like Reach remind us that at-risk youth, particularly students of color, need these resources to overcome the structures that have put them at a disadvantage.

But more importantly, Reach highlights the strength and potential in each student. It not only shows the public that struggling students can succeed given the right tools, it's also letting those same students know they have what it takes to achieve anything they put their minds to.

You can read more about Reach’s educational efforts on their website

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