Ten years ago, Charles Pierson started mentoring a third-grader named Rodderick. They were matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, where Pierson would later become CEO. Before they met, Rodderick was failing the standardized tests at school. His grades were in the 50s and 60s and his teachers were considering keeping him back a year. When Pierson asked the boy why sometimes he got 80s and 100s on his reading comprehension tests, and other times he got 20s and zeros, Rodderick had a simple answer: “I get distracted.”

“We over-teach cognitive learning in America,” Pierson says. “Emotional learning is just as important.”

They spent time talking, and Pierson learned about the stresses in Rodderick’s life. The boy’s older brother was in prison. His sister was pregnant. And his parents had just split up. Pierson also learned that the boy loved one thing above all else: basketball. He loved playing.He loved watching. He loved the Dallas Mavericks. But he’d never had the chance to go to an NBA game. So Pierson made him a deal. If Rodderick could bring up his grades to As and Bs for one six-week period, Pierson would buy him two tickets to see the Mavs.

Pierson is telling me this story while eating fish tacos at Mi Chula’s Good Mexican in Southlake (one fried, one grilled, served with a poblano creme sauce and Mexican slaw). The restaurant is packed for lunch. It’s not far from his new office in Grapevine, he explains, and he knows the menu here well.

Pierson is tall, with the broad shoulders of a former athlete and the firm, confident voice of a football coach. He just took over as president of Frog Street, a for-profit education materials publisher focused on pre-k and kindergarten markets. At the moment, though, we’re talking about his last job, a short, tumultuous stint as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. I ask him about some of the issues the organization faced during his tenure, which included money problems at several chapters and a scathing audit from the U.S. Department of Justice that concluded BBBSA had mishandled $23 million in federal grants.

Pierson tells me that he “didn’t know about all of the challenges” when took the job in 2012. He says he spent most of his time there traveling, constantly putting out fires. “That’s not my skill set,” he says. “I’m not a turnaround specialist.”

Earlier this year, Pierson resigned from the organization—though he still volunteers as a big brother—and joined a longtime friend, one of the creators of Frog Street. The company, the largest of its kind in Texas, sells teaching materials to parents, teachers, private schools, and public districts. Pierson is overseeing the launch of a new program for toddlers.
“Eighty-five percent of your brain development happens in the first 18 months,” he tells me.

All of Frog Street’s materials are evidence-based and research-based, Pierson says. Educators, whether we’re talking about parents or principals, want to see numbers. They want it quantified. “But you also don’t want to get caught in the trap of teaching to the test,” he says. “There has to be a balance.”

Pierson’s tone softens as he explains that the goals of Frog Street are in line with the goals of BBBSA. To reach kids, he says, you have to create a caring, consistent, joyful environment. You have to minimize what he calls “toxic stress.”

“We over-teach cognitive learning in America,” Pierson says. “Emotional learning is just as important.”

Which brings us back to Rodderick, the “little brother” he met 10 years ago. With the basketball tickets agreement in place—the chance to finally see a professional basketball game in person—the boy focused more. When the next round of report cards came out, Rodderick was on the honor roll. Per their agreement, Pierson bought him the two best tickets he could find. He explained that the boy could bring anyone he wanted. It still makes him emotional to think about what Rodderick did next.

The boy didn’t go to the game. Instead, he gave the tickets to his mom and dad, so they could go together and maybe reconsider the break-up. That fairy-tale ending didn’t happen, but Rodderick’s grades progressively improved and he became more focused. These days, Pierson proudly says, he’s a sophomore in college.