826 Valencia’s Executive Director interviewed by The Wall Street Journal

Leigh Lehman in the Pirate Supply Store

In a feature for The Wall Street Journal, reporter Yukari Watani Kane interviewed our Executive Director, Leigh Lehman, about the history of 826 Valencia, our partnerships with Bay Area public schools, and what it’s like to run a Pirate Store in today’s financial climate. Check out the article below, or read it on the Journal‘s website.

The nonprofit organization 826 Valencia, co-founded by author Dave Eggers, has been helping underprivileged San Francisco students improve their writings skills for nearly 10 years. Conceived as a way to connect students with Mr. Eggers’s network of talented writers and other professionals, the group, currently under Executive Director Leigh Lehman, has grown into an organization with 1,800 volunteers and 6,000 students, who participate in after-school tutoring, writing workshops and in-school projects.

While there are other nonprofits focused on writing skills, 826 Valencia, which takes its name from its address in the city’s Mission District, has pursued some especially high-profile projects. A partnership with the San Francisco Giants, for example, allows students to contribute to the team’s magazine. It also publishes books that compile student writings in partnership with best-selling authors and professional illustrators.

As public schools suffer from budget cuts, the demand for the organization’s services has grown. The 40-year-old Ms. Lehman, who has been with 826 Valencia since 2005, spoke to The Wall Street Journal last week about the challenges and rewards of running the organization.

WSJ: What kinds of students participate in your program?

Ms. Lehman: We target under-resourced schools, students and families. All our programming is free because the goal was to be able to provide the sort of individualized attention and help with writing that those students wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to receive.

WSJ: How do students find out about your programs, and what are your selection criteria?

Ms. Lehman: A lot of students find out about us through their teachers. A lot of them are here in the neighborhood, and it’s by word of mouth through families. We have a long, long waiting list for our after-school program and most of our evening and weekend workshops.

For the after-school program, the student has to either live right in this neighborhood or go to school here, and there needs to be financial and academic need.

WSJ: How closely do you work with the schools?

Ms. Lehman: The whole point of the in-schools program is to be there for the teacher. If the teacher wants our help collaborating on a plan, we’re happy to help. But we’re also there for them, so we do whatever the teacher wants. We often work through their English curriculum on bilingual poetry chapbooks [pocket-size booklets] or short stories or oral histories. But we’ve worked with math classes and science classes and history classes. Anything goes as long as it’s writing-based.

WSJ: How has your role changed as education funding keeps getting cut?

Ms. Lehman: Even 10 years ago, there was still a need for more arts education. But the need has become more acute in the last few years.

When students are seeing a lot of change in their schools, it’s great for them to see people beyond just their teachers wanting them to succeed.

WSJ: How do you measure success?

Ms. Lehman: We’re doing more and more each year with college readiness, and we assume that all our students are going to college but we don’t use college attendance as a measure of our success because there are so many factors that go into that. We look more at first draft versus final draft [in student projects], increase in confidence and homework-completion rates. We’re getting old enough now that we’re seeing our students start to grow up. Six former students who are now in college returned as interns, and a new staffer was our 2003 college scholarship winner. Chinaka Hodge, one of our early students, is an award-winning playwright.

WSJ: How involved is Mr. Eggers?

Ms. Lehman: He still is one of the driving forces behind how the program develops over time. Our personal-statement weekend, the big blowout college essay-writing festival, was his idea. But on a day-to-day level, he’s very hands off.

WSJ: How do you fund your budget, which totals about $1.2 million a year?

Ms. Lehman: We get donations from a lot of private foundations and donors, and we receive a couple of public grants. We host a lot of events. This past spring we had a very successful spelling bee, and it raised us over $100,000. Our pirate store [a store that sells pirate “supplies” and pirate-theme T-shirts, an idea of Mr. Eggers], which we operate because our center is zoned for retail in the front, is also a viable source of income.

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