The Man Behind the Unnatural: Q&A with 826DC Executive Director Joe Callahan

WASHINGTON -- Located in the now bustling center of Columbia Heights, 826DC has been a welcome, if somewhat confusing, addition to the neighborhood.

Sandwiched between a frozen yogurt shop and fried chicken chain at 14th Street NW and Park Road, the storefront of this writing-based student program is the The Museum of Unnatural History Gift Shop. The store specializes in hard-to-find, fake items -- the biggest seller is Unicorn Burps.

826DC celebrates the release of its next poetry anthology by students in the poetry clubs at Ballou Senior High School in Congress Heights and Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights, "Dear Brain," on Thursday.

The Huffington Post spoke with Executive Director Joe Callahan about the program, the store and how you can get involved.

The Huffington Post: What's the reason 826 is located in cities?

Joe Callahan: There is a profound need to bridge the urban achievement gap. In 2008, 38 percent of [D.C. Public School] students could not write at a proficient or above level, in 2010 that number fell to 32 percent.

We are an organization that combats those numbers. We're working with kids one on one. We believe, fundamentally, strong writing skills are a part of future success.

HuffPost: How do people view the organization?

Callahan: Some people consider us an arts program, some arts education, some people say just education, some after school tutoring, but we do so much more than that. We have field trips come to our space, we do student publishing. Our programs are centered on basically two things, project based leaning and one on one attention.

HuffPost: What's the difference between those approaches?

Callahan: One-on-one attention is when we sit an adult at a table with a kid helping them with everything that is on the sheet of paper in front of them.

HuffPost: Standard tutoring?

Callahan: Yes. Project-based learning is the publishing side of things. Making sure that almost everything we do has a finished product so students are constantly working towards something.

Basically it's a way for students to become more invested in the work they're doing. Whether it's a screenplay or a book or a chat book or a zine or one of these little books we do during our field trips, they feel engaged in the publishing process.

HuffPost: And these things have nothing to do with their school work?

Callahan: These are the more supplemental writing center side of things we do, where as our after school tutoring program starts off as homework help and as soon as they're done with homework, they get to do something creative. As soon as they get here for after school tutoring our goal is to help them understand their homework, then finish their homework so when they get home they can spend quality time with their family.

HuffPost: Does it matter how the student is doing in school to participate?

Callahan: Anyone can participate. We have specific products based on grades.

HuffPost: What if that student is failing?

Callahan: It's not just for kids that are passing, it's for everyone. We're trying to get everyone to reading level or above reading level. It's our goal to move kids up the scale. Especially because of where we're located, there are large populations below grade level. In a two mile radius there are 35 schools, Kindergarten through 12th grade.

HuffPost: How are the programs different for the grade levels?

Callahan: A lot of our in house programming is for high schoolers. Since most of our high schools kids don't come to the tutoring portion, we go to the school to work with them.

HuffPost: What kind of programming is that?

Callahan: We went to Cap City Public Charter and helped them write folk tales. They're generally very writing focused. We don't do homework help in the school system. We'll support a classroom with a writing project.

HuffPost: How are other groups involved?

Callahan: Right now we're partnering with Simon Scholars based out of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School. They come once a month and we work with their writing program.

We've done workshops with LAYC and DC Scores. It's not just schools and individual students that come to us. We also partner with other community programs.

HuffPost: How does the organization operate during the summer?

Callahan: We partner with schools for their summer school programs. We'll be working with students that might be a little bit more remedial than some of the other kids we get. We'll still have tutoring two to three days a week, during the school week tutoring runs Monday through Thursday.

HuffPost: How often to students participate?

Callahan: It depends. Some come four days a week, some come once a week. It's a case to case basis.

HuffPost: What's the makeup of the students?

Callahan: Ninety-seven percent of our kids live in the District. We don't host programs outside of the District, not yet. We just don't have the resources. We only have two and half staff members serving more than 2,000 kids this year.

HuffPost: What's the biggest obstacle for 826?

Callahan: It's a combination of things. We're also looking for volunteers with daytime availability. We have more than 1,000 volunteers that last year engaged in 11,545 volunteer hours.

We have plenty of people that can help out in the night and weekends but the majority of the programs take place during the day. If you have flexibility with your job, that would be an amazing resource for us.

There is no volunteering minimum. We like regularity with our volunteers because it's better for the students, but we understand life happens. We also need people that have copy editing experience or graphic design experience or grant writing experience. I would love someone that would want to work retail. They're super important. They're the first face someone sees when they walk in. They have to explain our message, how we work with kids, all those important things.

One of our best graphic designers is based in New York. A lot of the positions don't require volunteers being on site.

826DC Museum of Unnatural History

826DC Museum of Unnatural History

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