“Learning, to me, is at the epicenter of what it means to be a human being.”
Paul Thiebaut III, ’07 Economics, dropped out of high school and was a homeless drug dealer until he had a learning epiphany. After discovering a love of reading at age 23, “I learned my way out of poverty,” he says. Now he’s trying to help preschoolers in East Palo Alto do the same.
A bit of a learning philosophizer, Thiebaut promotes the value of finding one’s intrinsic learning motivation (ILM) through 10 Books A Home (10BH), a nonprofit tutoring service he founded after graduation. “There were a ton of kids for years and years failing in East Palo Alto and I wanted to do something about that,” says Thiebaut. “I wanted to give kids in my community a chance at success.”
10BH serves nearly 200 low-income families in the Ravenswood City School District, where 85 percent of students starting kindergarten are academically behind and approximately 60 percent drop out of school annually. The nonprofit has a $700,000 annual budget, funded by donors such as the Hurlbut-Johnson Charitable Trust, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Google and Facebook.
“We don’t close achievement gaps. We prevent them,” Thiebaut says, noting that “preschoolers have not been labeled as behind yet, so they can still enter kindergarten above grade level.” The students with whom he and a team of ILM tutors work are predominantly “high-poverty English learners, who are supposed to struggle or fail.” But 10BH alums don’t fail, Thiebaut clarifies. They are “on par with kids from higher-income backgrounds because they had access to methodically learning about what they loved for two years before they started kindergarten.”
The idea behind ILM: children already know what they love to learn. Teachers just need to identify and build upon those basic motivations “in challenging and broadening ways,” Thiebaut says. “Learning, to me, is at the epicenter of what it means to be a human being and the most elemental access point to activating and cultivating our potential. It’s everything: it’s who you are and who you can be.”