Ninive Clements Calegari, CEO, 826 National

Ninive Clements Calegari, CEO, 826 National

In 2002, veteran school teacher Ninive Clements Calegari and author Dave Eggers co-founded 826 Valencia — named after its address in San Francisco — to help local students ages 6-18 with expository and creative writing through tutoring, workshops, field trips, publishing, and in-school programs. Since then, chapters have been established in Los Angeles, Chicago, Brooklyn, Seattle, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Boston under the umbrella of 826 National. In addition to heading 826 National, Calegari currently is helping produce a documentary film as part of the Teacher Salary Project. PND recently spoke to Calegari about 826 National, public school reform, and developments in the teacher salary movement.

Philanthropy News Digest: How did the idea for 826 Valencia come about?

Ninive Clements Calegari: The story begins with Dave [Eggers] and myself living and working in two different settings. I was working in public school classrooms in the Bay Area and had a hundred and forty-six students at a time, which meant I never could give my students the undivided attention I wanted to and they needed. Dave, who was a friend of mine, was in Brooklyn and was realizing that for him and his friends who were doing freelance work, there were ebbs and flows in the work that came their way. So, here was a group of highly skilled people that could be tapped, in a flexible way, to do something good for society. Dave wanted to pay special attention to people working in publishing, the industry he knew best, and he wanted to work with students. It was a serendipitous confluence of people and events.

PND: What did you learn about public education from your years as a public school teacher?

NCC: There are two things I would point to. First, when you are dealing with the number of students that teachers in urban school districts generally have to deal with, it is simply impossible to give those students the kind of individual attention they need and very difficult to do the kind of projects you want to do. Second, we can't overestimate the importance of teachers who are able to survive a demanding schedule, day after day, and bring magic into the classroom. I'm completely awestruck by teachers who can do both. We've built our nonprofit with those very things in mind.

I think a major distinction between 826 and other arts, literacy, or youth development organizations is that we don't go into the classroom and tell teachers what to do. Instead, we ask teachers what their dreams are, and then we work to make those dreams come true. We also try to help them be more effective in the classroom by working to lower student-teacher ratios. We know what a teacher's life is like; teachers work incredibly hard and are always looking to secure more resources for their kids. That's where we can help. I always tell the staff here that we should be doing 85 percent of the work so we're not leaving teachers with more work on their plate. And I think teachers understand that we're working to make their dreams — not ours — come true.

PND: The book you co-authored, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers, is something of a call-to-action. Have you seen any significant changes in public education since the book was published in 2005?

NCC: Actually, what has happened has been really exciting. There's a lot more going on with teachers' salaries now, all over the country. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the D.C. public school system, just launched an initiative based on the premise that teachers should be paid up to $131,000 a year! And the Equity Project Charter School, which is opening in New York City next year, is going to pay teachers $125,000 — that's nearly twice the salary of the average New York City school teacher.

But there's still a lot of work to do in order to get mainstream America to understand how critical this is. In urban centers characterized by immigrant communities and concentrated poverty, there's a lot of teacher turnover, and that turnover means that schools in those districts will never do a good job for kids. In other places, more affluent places, teachers can't afford to buy homes in the communities where they teach. Twenty percent of them have a second job outside the teaching profession, and another 30 percent do other work in addition to their classroom work to pay for their teaching habit.

We have to turn things on their head and make teaching a profession that people are clamoring to enter. You know, 70 percent of college kids think that teachers are paid too little, and that's the demographic we want desperately to attract to the profession. But a lot of people, when they think about teaching at all, still think, "Oh, isn't that a nice, noble profession." The public, for the most part, still doesn't believe that teaching demands the same kind of intellect, passion, and multi-tasking skills that other professions require. That's a shame, because it does. And one way to change those perceptions is to pay teachers a lot more than we currently do.

PND: Much has been made of the need for American students to do better at math and science. Why did you choose to focus on writing at your tutoring centers?

NCC: I don't see it as an either/or thing. We're just focused on what we know and do best. Besides, I think an engagement with and ability to manipulate words is important for any job in today's economy. I don't see the two skill sets as separate; I see them as interrelated.

The thing that's unique about writing is that, in addition to it being about plot, character, and flow, it's also about human beings telling stories. There's an emotional piece to it that is beautiful and compelling. We see it every year when kids write their college entrance essays or autobiographies. It's a rich experience for them on a lot of levels; children from different cultures share their stories with one another and gain empathy and insight into what they have in common. But, of course, I also want kids to know how to solve an algebra problem!

PND: I've volunteered for 826NYC in Brooklyn and have found the children there to be incredibly engaged. How do you reach children who might otherwise say, "This is dumb, I don't want to do this," or are distracted by their iPods or cellphones?

NCC: I think it has to do with the fact that the people who teach at our centers are real cartoonists and real journalists. In effect, the kids are part of an apprenticeship experience with a dude who actually does the same job in the real world. They can sniff out the real deal; there isn't a kid in the world who can't understand when it's the real deal and when it's not. And we give kids real challenges: Those are real books they create, and we reallyput them up for sale on Amazon and in their corner book stores. That kind of real-life mentorship is inspiring for kids. It becomes addicting, that sense of pride in a job well done. So I don't feel like I'm in competition with their iPods, because we are offering them something that is real and authentic. And they love that.

Lauren Kelley