Two afternoons a week, Mikala Tardy walks six blocks from Eastern High School to Payne Elementary School, not far from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
She signs in at the front desk just after 3:30 p.m. and makes her way to a classroom, where she'll be tutoring second- and third-graders who are full of energy after the school day.
Today, Mikala and three students work through an exercise about communities and the building blocks that create them. They learn how to spell people and playground — two essential components of any community, they decide.
Mikala, a senior at Eastern High, began this work back in the ninth grade.
It's run by Reach, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, that trains high school students like her to be reading tutors for elementary school students.
"It's a tutoring program that works in two directions," says former social worker Mark Hecker, who founded Reach in 2009. He says it's serving a vital need in the city: Two-thirds of students in D.C. public schools can't read and write at grade level when they start high school. Reach helps these older students become better readers — by giving them the tools to teach younger kids.
Tutoring and mentorship programs that pair up younger and older students are common. But most rely on high-achieving students. Reach turns the idea on its head: Hecker says most of the teenage tutors start the program reading between a fourth and sixth grade level.
The tutors receive training in literacy instruction because for them, Reach isn't just an after-school program — it's a job. They get paid for the time they spend reading and writing with kids.
"We work to position them as community assets and role models," Hecker explains. That's not how teenagers — especially teens of color — are usually treated, he says.
Struggling teenagers, he notes, are often given work written for younger students. But they can tell when they're reading something that was meant for young kids.
"Kids don't like to feel stupid," Hecker says. With Reach, teens are given the responsibility of helping a younger student. That's a big deal for them.
"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 says. But that trust, he adds, must go both ways: "You can't get kids to be vulnerable enough to work on really hard things — like reading — if they don't trust you."
Reach, he says, is all about establishing consistent relationships — and being a steady force in the lives of students. That's crucial in a city where three-quarters of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Many face poverty and the traumas that come with it.
In addition to after-school tutoring, Reach provides summer opportunities and preparation for college and future careers. Hundreds of students in the city are involved.
Hecker and the Reach staff have made a commitment to stick with teens through their high school years — even as some face transfers, family troubles, homelessness and anything else that might come up.
"They're not going to be perfect," Hecker says, "because they're navigating many, many things in their personal lives."
Hecker says he plans to grow the nonprofit over the next few years, to serve more students and partner with more schools and sites in D.C. And, one day, Reach may expand to more places around the country.
Mikala Tardy says she likes reading a lot more than she did when she started almost four years ago. And when she's working with kids, she feels like a teacher. She's on track to graduate and plans to head to college in the fall.
Mikala hasn't decided on her plans after college, but she does know one thing: She wants to work with kids.