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Students at D.C. non-profit teach kids to read

Thursday - 8/21/2014, 12:20am  ET

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Kyare Turner shows her 'The Gloomy Light' book that he helped to create. (WTOP/Kate Ryan).

WASHINGTON -- A llama, a frog and two teenagers walk into an elementary school…

It sounds like the start of a joke, but it's what happens every time Kyare Turner and Za'Metria Froneberger visit schools to read to students.

The two teenagers work with Reach Incorporated, a non-profit that hires high school students to tutor elementary school children in reading. One of the books they use is one they wrote themselves: "The Gloomy Light." It features Ernie the llama and Sal the frog. In the story, the characters help each other in school -- something the D.C. high school students Kyare and Za'Metria do for the children they work with.

But this program is different from lots of others in that high school students selected to work at Reach Incorporated aren't high achievers when they start. "We look for those kids that aren't necessarily thriving when we meet them" says Reach founder and executive director Mark Hecker. "We find the kids that aren't necessarily honor roll students already and give them the opportunity to become leaders and really grow in that experience."

Za'Metria says she's definitely grown: when she entered 9th grade she says, she didn't like reading. When asked to read aloud, she'd tell her teachers to pick someone else. "Now, I'm like, ‘OK, I'm ready'! And I volunteer to read." Hecker says for the students, the initial attraction to the program was the fact that they'd get paid—it's a job where they get training. But Kyare says earning money isn't the only reward. "When I see kids read and they're reading levels go up, that made me want to read more."

And the striking thing is how the reading skills of the tutors improve. Hecker says "To teach something, you have to know it very well." Twice a week the tutors are trained in instructional techniques. "And twice a week they tutor their younger students, which helps them solidify those foundational literacy skills while giving back to their community." In one year, each tutor spends about 130 extra hours reading "So it's a great way to build fluency just through practice as well." Hecker says.

That was the case for both Kyare and Za'Metria, who've seen their reading skills jump by as much as five grade levels. Both say their experience with Reach helps them in the rest of their high school classes. Reading is now less of a chore and they find it's easier to stay focused on their schoolwork.

But Reach isn't just about reading: it works to develop leaders among the students. There's a philanthropy pitch competition, explains Hecker.

"We give our kids $3,000 and it's their job to give it away. They all identify organizations that matter to them, research and make public presentations that get voted on."

Hecker say Reach is about giving kids real responsibility for real outcomes that matter to them.

In speaking about how effective teens can be as tutors and role models, Hecker says, "When you treat them like assets and let them take on things that matter, they soar."

In the 2014-2015 academic year, Reach, Incorporated expects to serve 100 tutors and 100 students in five D.C. area schools: Four public schools and one charter school.

To see what happens to Ernie the Llama and Sal the Frog, check out "The Gloomy Light". The books by Reach Incorporated tutors are available for sale.

For more about what Reach Incorporated does, visit the organization's website.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

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