How 826 National is rewriting the rules of education

There’s a lot of debate in Washington right now about how money should be spent on education, including funding for public versus charter schools. But nonprofit organizations aren’t around for politicians to decide. One group has been rewriting the rules of learning for 15 years, reports CBS News’ Jamie Wax.

826 is a national organization with chapters across the country. Its army of employees and volunteers tutor and mentor students at its locations, and go into schools for workshops, in the most creative way.

Behind a nondescript storefront at 826 Valencia St. in San Francisco’s Mission District, you can buy things like eyepatches, hats, wooden legs and treasure chests, just to name a few. 

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CBS News

If truth really is stranger than fiction, the story behind this pirate supply store is truly novel. 

Every afternoon for the past 15 years, students ranging in age from 6 to 18 have come to this room for after-school tutoring. Volunteers help students with their homework and a whole lot more.

“There are lots of after-school tutoring programs, there are lots of foundations and charities. What sets 826 apart from the other programs?” Wax asked.

“What sets us apart I think is this idea that education can be fun, that writing can be fun. That it can be a way to engage young people in their educations by giving them the power to tell their own story,” said Gerald Richards, who has been CEO of 826 National for the past six years.

“I remember being in a meeting where someone said, ‘Oh, this is a boutique program.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no! That’s not what we are,’” Richards recalled. “Writing is a powerful, active activity. I think we find a lot of people that are like, ‘Oh, kids need to read.’ I’m like, ‘Yes. That is without question. But they also need to know how to write. They need to know how to write well.’”

Author David Eggers described the origins of 826 Valencia in a 2008 TED Talk. Eggers, who had rented that space to publish a literary journal, wanted his staff to devote afternoons to help underprivileged students in the neighborhood.

“When I moved back to San Francisco, we rented this building,” Eggars said. 

Eggars, who had rented that space to publish a literary journal, wanted his staff to devote afternoons to help underprivileged students in the neighborhood.

“Everything was great except for, the landlord said, ‘Well, the space is zoned for retail. You have to come up with something, you’ve got to sell something. You can’t just have a tutoring center.’ So we thought, ‘Haha, really?’” Eggars said.

During the renovations, someone had said it looked like the hull of a ship. So they decided to sell supplies for the working buccaneer. After a few weeks, the kids were on board.  

“There was no stigma. The kids weren’t going into ‘the center for kids that need more help’ or something like that,” Eggars explained at the TED Talk. “It was 826 Valencia. First of all, it was a pirate supply store, which is insane, and then secondly, there’s a publishing company in the back.”

“How do these kids pay for this program? What does it cost to them?” Wax asked.

“It’s all free of charge,” Richards said. “You don’t have to have a bank account to come in. We want to make it as easily accessible to young people as possible.”

Today, there are seven chapters that they say serve 32,000 kids across the country. There’s the Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles, the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. in Chicago, the Detroit Robot Factory and Robot Supply & Repair in Ann Arbor, the Magic Supply Co. in Washington, D.C., the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company in New York, and the Bigfoot Research Institute in Boston.  

“What have you seen as far as changes in kids that have gone through 826?” Wax asked.

“I mean, the big thing that I see is change in confidence,” said Jessica Drench, executive director of 826 Boston. There, as with the other stores, you can buy books written by the students.  

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Author Jeff Kinney with 826 National students 

826 National

“So this a collection that our after-school kids published with us a couple years ago. ‘I Rate Today a Negative 1,000,’ inspired by ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ by Jeff Kinney. And Jeff Kinney wrote the forward for the book,” Drench said in sharing one example. “He came to visit the kids and came to their book release celebrations. And at the end, they see their work is celebrated by a wide audience, even outside of their immediate community.”

Boston native Edwin Gonzalez’s work with 826 helped him land a scholarship to Brandeis University.

“Would you say this place changed your life in a big way?” Wax asked.

“Oh, absolutely,” Gonzalez said.

He’s now a program and development coordinator there. 

“Is part of being here a desire to pay back what you’ve received?” Wax asked.

“Yeah, I feel like I’ve already paid that debt back and now I just want to see us do more and serve more students,” Gonzalez said.

The employees are helped by a national network of approximately 5,000 volunteers, who donate whatever time they have. 

“So rather than saying, ‘You can only volunteer if you got 10 hours,’ right? We’re like, ‘Give us an hour, give us two hours a week, every month. That’s all we care about. Give us two hours for the month, that’s great.’ You know, we want more, but trying to make it easy enough for the volunteers so that they keep coming back,” Richards said.

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Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company’s secret bat cave door

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“How much fun is it when you get to go to these centers?” Wax asked.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Richards said. “At the Superhero store, there’s a secret door like as if you were in the Batcave, right? And you have to go through the secret door, and the kids know where the secret door is, and the smile on their faces as they open this creaky door and shuffle in to do writing, right? There’s nothing like watching that happen.”

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Kids watch as the bat cave door is opened at Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company

On the day Wax visited, a class of 5th graders from P.S. 230 in Brooklyn were on a field trip writing a book. They came up with the tale of Garby the garbage can and its friends, which was printed and bound for students at the end of the writing session.

“What’s the goal ultimately of this organization? How big do you want this to get? And what do you ultimately want to do?” Wax asked Richards.

“I usually joke… I’m like, ‘World domination,’” Richards said, laughing. “I think there’s a simplicity to what we do that allows us to go pretty far. I mean I think we can be in every city in the country. We can have an 826 in every city in the country. We could have 826 in every city in the planet. So the sky’s the limit.”

Richards said they’re currently working with groups in New Orleans and the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and there’s interest from Atlanta, Oakland and Miami. There’s also 826-inspired organizations in 17 countries.