The transformation must have seemed like a miracle for Victor’s teachers, parents and friends, least of all to Victor himself. To go from being a kid making C’s and D’s and who was several grade levels behind in reading and math to the top of his class was an amazing turnaround. It is making those miracles happen that is the mission of Educational Justice, a nonprofit founded in 2015 by Moshe Ohayon.
The educator believes that access to success in school should be an equal opportunity proposition without regard to socioeconomic status. After years of operating a successful tutoring and test preparation company, he became disheartened at the realization that those educational opportunities were often only available to those from financially privileged backgrounds. That’s why, in 2015, he founded the nonprofit Educational Justice (EJ) to help level the educational playing field for underserved students.
Educational Justice endeavors to innovate and implement practical solutions aimed at closing the opportunity gap in education. The program produces service opportunities for high-performing high school students to pair up with low-income middle school students who are struggling to keep up with their peers and can’t afford expensive tutoring options.
“What really drew me to the program and one of the most important things Educational Justice is doing is tackling educational inequity from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum,” said Bronte Murrell, EJ’s Resource and Development Coordinator. “The program is providing tutoring to low-income middle-school students, which is so important and necessary, but it’s also exposing bright, affluent high schoolers to students growing up in disadvantaged homes,” she said. “It gives them experience to do direct service with them to learn about their lives and inspire them to be advocates for social justice,” she said.
The tutors (known as EJ Activists) are part of an academic honor society of high-achieving and service-minded high school students who are committed to eliminating educational inequity in our society. Membership in EJ Activists is by application only and participants commit to provide weekly sessions of one-on-one tutoring, academic enrichment, and mentoring to underserved younger peers who are struggling in school.
The fifth to eighth grade middle school students being academically mentored (known as EJ Achievers) apply to receive regular academic support through the $2,000 EJ Achiever Scholarships, awarded based on demonstrated financial need. Achievers, who come from 70 different elementary and middle schools including JCPS and private school, are allowed to pick their own tutor, a cool part of the program that helps from day one, said Murrell. Activists meet weekly with their students at six different locations, including the Educational Justice office downtown, and five library branches reaching across the city: Shively, Iroquois, South Central, Jeffersontown and Bon Air.
“Our goal is to have a student in the program for four years. The ideal situation is a student applies in fifth grade and picks a ninth-grader to be their tutor. At the end of 8th grade, the Achiever is in a position to apply to be an Activist and tutor an Achiever of their own. In fact, we had our first Achiever become an Activist this school year,” said Murrell.
When the EJ Activists program began in 2015, it grew quickly from six Activist-Achiever pairs to 183 pairs this year. “It’s a challenge but exciting,” said Murrell. “Some of our students start out at three to four grade levels behind. Not all students have the opportunity to get help and to have that kind of role model in their lives – someone who is currently successful in school, who can get you excited about school or going to college.”
Educational Justice is seeing results, said Murrell. “We’ve been conducting and analyzing in house test results, through the Scholastic reading and math inventories, and also grades. There is a significant improvement in math skills and some improvement in reading, too, great results for a program still in its infancy.
“What is gratifying is seeing your student’s transformation,” said Activist Maddie Touma, a senior at Kentucky Country Day, who plans to be a teacher. She was attracted to the program because she had watched her brother struggle and get behind in reading in school. This is her third year tutoring the aforementioned Victor, who is now an 8th grader at Highland Middle School. They meet weekly at Bon Air Library.
“I see the biggest thing Victor has gotten out of it is this new love of learning. He gets to enjoy school now. When we first met, he was confused, so he wasn’t interested and didn’t pay attention. He couldn’t see the point,” said Touma.
Fast forward to this year. Victor recently told his tutor that “he absolutely loves school because he gets to learn something new every day,” she said. “That made me really happy.”
Victor’s academic progress has also done a 180.
“When we first met in 6th grade, he was extremely behind in his math and reading. We had to go over parts of speech and how to form a sentence, and picture books were what he was able to read. We had a lot of work to do. He couldn’t write full sentences, didn’t understand punctuation. In math, he knew no multiplication tables, which made it impossible to advance to anything more,” said Touma. “He now has goals, is at the top of his class, wants to learn more math and read harder books. I never knew we would reach this point. He’s a totally different person than the one I met two and half years ago.”
Touma said she plans to pursue a master’s degree in education because she wants to do something that affects the educational system on a macro level. “I want to do something about students who are behind who keep falling behind, and are not getting the help they need to catch up.” Touma plans to attend Northwestern or Yale. As for Victor, he has applied to Atherton High School and is waiting to hear back.
The two plan to stay in touch after tutoring has ended. “That was the most gratifying part of the experience with my Achiever – and something unexpected – that relationship we built. We are not only tutoring but we are friends. He’s interested in my life, and I’m interested in his, and Victor said he wants to be an Activist next year, too.”