A Conversation with Doug Eickman ’05

Doug Eickman ’05 became the Director of the REACH Program in 2019 after spending the previous nine years as REACH Dean of Mathematics and a teacher in Regis’ Math Department. In January, Vice President for Development James Kennedy ’02, who served as REACH Dean of English Language Arts from 2015 to 2017, sat down with Eickman for a wide-ranging discussion of the program. A condensed transcript is published below, and a video of their full conversation is embedded at the bottom of this page.

I know you’ve been with REACH since 2010. I’d love to know more about how you got involved with the program and what inspired you to work with REACH.

On some level, I think I’ve always known I wanted to do work with something like the REACH Program. My path to being an educator started in high school and college — loving the classes I was in, thinking about educational access and my own personal story. My family was very much a working-class Brooklyn family. My mother was a nurse. My father had a bunch of jobs. He ended up working for the MTA. Neither of them had the traditional four-year college experience. I knew I wanted to do something that involved working with what we call an underserved population.

I fully intended to be a public school educator, actually. My arriving in Jesuit education was a complete accident. I was in grad school around the time of the New York City teacher hiring freeze, and my grandmother found an ad in the New York Times for a teaching position at Regis, and it mentioned something about the REACH Program. I was only dimly aware of what it was. I was a young kid coming out of college and grad school and found out about the REACH Program by accident, and I’m really grateful that I did.

So you’ve been the Director of REACH for less than a year now, and you’ve remarked to me before that leaving the classroom and entering a leadership role is a big move. What has that been like?

I definitely miss the classroom. When I went into education, it was definitely to be a classroom teacher and interact with the kids. But one thing that’s nice about the REACH Director job is that I still have a lot of on-the-ground interaction with kids. I lead our chapel services on Saturday mornings and during the summer. This past summer I had a chance to be a classroom teacher. I don’t think that will be the case going forward, but there are so many times where I still get to be on the front lines because we’re still a pretty small program in the grand scheme of things.

I think that, as an institution, we’re lucky to have you in the role since you’ve had a long history with the program. You have a teaching background and an administrative background to bring to the work that you do now. So, on chapel, I know the singing…

You’re not going to get me to sing on camera.

I wasn’t going to ask! But you do lead the kids in song?

I do. I actually love singing with the kids. I’m not a musician by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s fun. We talk about being open to growth, and I think the best way I can do that is by being this big, goofy guy who is not afraid to get up in front of 100 middle schoolers at 9:00 on a Saturday morning and sing a Gospel song.

Thinking about the REACH summer, those six weeks — three of them residential, three back at Regis — what do you think has made those summers really impactful and really effective? And as you think about the future of the program, what are some of the ways you and your team are considering evolving the program?

When you think about it, we’re taking 150 middle schoolers — we’re taking 100 of them to Pennsylvania, and 50 to Fordham. They’re staying with us 24 hours, so we’re basically mom, dad, teacher, caregiver in all senses of that word for those three weeks. I think the magic of the summer happens because of how intense that experience is. I don’t know if REACH would be anywhere near as successful as we are if we did not take the kids with us. That residential experience is key because it requires a high level of buy-in from the families and it offers us an opportunity to work with the kids in a really holistic way. We get to work with the kid from the moment he gets up to the moment he goes to bed and instill in him what it means to live your life according to these principles that we’ve established. It’s that retreat aspect to it, where you go away into the wilderness of Scranton, Pennsylvania — not to offend the fine denizens of Scranton, Pennsylvania — and then you come back to your normal environment. Now you’re ready to take what you’ve learned and take what you’ve experienced and bring it into your day-to-day life, and that’s plugging into a tradition that we’ve used in Jesuit education for a really long time.

When I think about where we need to go, specifically vis-à-vis the summer experience, I have a lot of thoughts. I’ve often wondered what we could accomplish with a fourth summer right before high school. That’s a big question for us.

One of the things that always sticks with me is how critical the other adults on campus are — not only the teachers that you hire, but also the collegians, who are really with their groups 24/7, living in the dorms with them. The counselors that support the teachers. And many of those counselors and collegians are REACH alumni. Some of them are Regis alumni.

One thing that I often say to staff is that the further I get in age from a REACH student, the less power I have in influencing them. I don’t think that’s always true but in some sense it can be. I have a Master’s in math and I have all this experience, but it’s actually that 20-year-old, who knows where they’re from, who looks like them, who speaks in that same manner, that they’re comfortable with. That [collegian] has an unbelievable ability — maybe even just in a manner that’s as simple as being the way that he is — to inspire that growth that we’re looking to see. I often describe the collegian position as being a single father of 12. That’s very much what it is for three weeks. And they are the backbone of our program along with our counselors and, during the year, our mentors. I think that’s really where the most growth happens on the part of REACH students — not just as students but as people.

You make a great point about REACH alumni being able to talk to, kind of, their younger brothers, figuratively speaking. I think that’s extremely powerful. And I know you guys did, earlier this month, an event with REACH alumni. Can you say a little bit more about that community of guys that are now out of college that came through REACH — what their connection to one another and the program is like?

It’s pretty cool to be able to see this cohort of young men, who are really not much younger than I am, who are out in the world doing exciting things. We’ve got people in law school. We’ve got people becoming doctors. We’ve got people in successful business. That they went through this experience 12, 13, 14 years ago, they are bonded because of that. I think a lot of people have that experience in their high school and their college. But to say you had that experience in your middle school summer program? That’s pretty remarkable. I don’t think there are a lot of people who are eagerly changing their plans on a Friday night to get together with their summer camp buddies from seventh grade. So you see the kind of brotherhood that exists, and the one thing that I’ve been struck by when talking to REACH alumni is the hunger that exists in this population to mentor and to serve as guides, as you said, for the younger brothers — the ones that follow in their path. There’s a real hunger in the community to support, in whatever way they can, future REACH students and ensure that they’re successful.

One thing that I think is really special about REACH is how closely you and your team work not just with students but with their families.

Yeah, there’s a lot of work that goes on with the families. When I started, I was very much a teacher and curriculum designer, but over time as I got a little older—I was 21 when I started — I got a chance to have more individual conversations. You’re calling the family in, and it’s not because they’re in trouble. You’re trying to share feedback with them in a really productive way. And it’s more than a traditional parent-teacher conference. We’re going over test scores. We’re going over these detailed narrative evaluations. We’re trying to paint the family a holistic picture of who their child is as a student and as a leader, and understanding that leader in the context of the five pillars of Jesuit education. We’re trying to work with the families and learn information from them about how we as a team can get this kid to where he needs to get over the next two years. And to make the gains that we make, that’s the kind of work we need to do.

And these conversations can be kind of tricky because these young men have been successful wherever they are — that’s why they’re in the REACH Program. But you’re trying to say: Actually, there’s another world up there. There are these amazing schools, and we think you have the capability of being up there. And you’re on track, but it’s going to be a long road. And we know that you’re going to need to grow as a reader. You’re going to need to take that 10 minutes every night and make it 30. And you’re going to have to take that 95 that you have, and we’re going to make it a 99. And the way we’re going to do that is, we’re going to use your planner and we’re going to organize some separate homework time every day.

It’s really about knowing the family and meeting each case where they are. I think there’s this myth that families from underserved backgrounds don’t care about education or value education. I’ve never experienced that in the work that I do. But I do meet families that aren’t equipped, maybe it’s because they don’t speak English very well, or because the system they know is in another hemisphere. And so we’re really trying to equip these families with the tools that they will need to navigate this complex system. The American educational system — for better or for worse — is incredibly complicated in New York. And it’s really about giving them the tools that they will need, while assuring them that you will be alongside them the whole way, to navigate that landscape.

It really is inspiring work that you do with families. And I think you’ve even gone to learn Spanish on your own, right? To be able to better communicate with those families?

I’m not fluent. My wife and I went to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks to do some immersion, and I audited a few classes here at Regis. And the families appreciate it. Sometimes I run into an accent that I struggle with, or sometimes I can’t express an idea. But they appreciate the effort. We have two other staff members who are fluent in Spanish, and so they can do the lifting that I can’t do, which is really good.

This has been great, and there’s so much more we could talk about. One last thing I want to ask you is: What’s your favorite REACH story?

I think I have to cheat and name two categories of stories. We’re in high school admissions season right now so I have admissions on my mind. We just had a family — the kid just got accepted to Regis — and they did a video of their acceptance to Regis like it was a college signing day. And it was just incredibly sweet to see the kid and the family just going nuts and celebrating.

The other thing that just jumped out to me was broken bones, which is a weird thing to say is one of my favorites. But, weirdly, the moments where I’ve been most proud of the program and most impressed by the level of commitment that our families show is when kids are injured or hurt. I’ve never had a situation when a kid got injured and the family said, “Ok, well he’s going to have to withdraw from the program.” I don’t want to make it seem like kids were breaking bones left and right at the REACH Program. It does happen. I’m remembering a particular instance where a kid broke his arm. We actually spent a whole night with him at the hospital. We called up the family and told them if he wants to spend a couple days at home, that would be understandable, and they said, “No. He broke his left hand. He’s a righty. He’s here to do a job. There’s no reason he can’t do it.” It’s a pleasure working 18 hours for a family like that. I think I’ve had that happen three or four times. Different digits and different bones, but I find it just incredibly inspirational.

Posted: 4/5/20