Creative Commons
Creative Commons

Ambitious high school students who aspire to go to a good school and land lucrative scholarships join clubs, arts organizations or sports. Another résumé booster is volunteering. But too often teens are not allowed to actually engage with the problem they want to help solve. Instead, they’re usually assigned to fundraisers, walks and bake sales, none of which they’re uniquely qualified for or good at.

But you know what ambitious high schoolers are really good at? School.

Moshe Ohayon said he had a revelation when one of the students he works with at his elite Louisville Tutoring Agency told him he volunteered at a food pantry and was relegated to stacking cans, not actually interacting with the people the pantry served. It was a task that didn’t utilize any of his skills.

“It’s a huge loss of talent,” said Ohayon.

Ohayon, who has a long history of creatively working to address education inequity, realized there are a lot of middle schoolers who are falling through the cracks and a lot of high school kids looking for meaningful ways to volunteer or who have to volunteer because either a school or a club requires it.

So he created Educational Justice Activists (EJA) — a nonprofit that links high-achieving high schoolers with low-achieving middle school students for one-on-one tutoring sessions for one hour a week.

This program has been three years in the making. Ohayon launched a pilot class this past academic year with around 40 students. This upcoming school year, he is hoping to be able to sign up 100 middle and 100 high school kids.

High-achieving high school students make great tutors. Not only do they understand the subject matter, they’re good at “the game of school,” said Ohayon. They haven’t gotten as far as they have without understanding how to work within the system. The high school students can help teach the middle schoolers how to play the game.

Before he started this program, Ohayon tried to help low-income, low-achieving students by offering ACT-prep classes for free or for cheap at schools and community centers. But in big classes, Ohayon said, “we were not reaching enough students, and quality dropped.”

He said after his class at Central High School, the students’ ACT composite scores went up two points. “The principal was thrilled, but we were in tears,” he said. Two points looks good if you’re the principal — it’s validation.

But if you’re a low-achieving student, going from an ACT score of 15 to 17 isn’t going to widen your college or scholarship options; it doesn’t take you to the “next level” as an applicant. To achieve real results that will make an impact, one-on-one tutoring is the way to go.

In order to become an Activist, students must submit a transcript, application and letter of recommendation. If they make the cut, they then must come in for an interview. Students who are accepted have an intensive training session before they start and smaller break-out group training throughout the year.

The best case scenario is to pair a ninth grader to a fifth grader, so the relationship can last as long as possible — four years. Achievers — the students being tutored — can sign up between fifth and eighth grades.

Ohayon has worked with an overseas developer to create a web application to pair Achievers and Activists through something that looks a lot like a dating app. Students create profiles, Achievers can browse the profiles to find a good match. Once they’re matched up, they share a “wall” where they can leave messages for each other and send documents back and forth.

Activists are also required to log their sessions on the site. They rate the student’s participation and say whether or not the student was on time. Then they’re asked to send their Achiever a few sentences of review of the session and encouragement.

The interaction is gamified. Achievers who perform well during their sessions can earn points they can save up to redeem for something as small as a couple of DumDums to as big as an iPad. There’s a leaderboard to promote healthy competitions.

Of course, Ohayon and his staff track all of these interactions and continue to work on improving the site.

Moshe Ohayon
Moshe Ohayon

He recently added academic games students can play and earn points. They also can “collect” college pennants, which infuses the “college culture” into the program. You can click on the pennant and it will take you to the school’s website.

This past year, the pilot program was in partnership with JCPS. While JCPS offered the program to all schools — which, frankly, EJA wasn’t ready for — only two middle schools came back with any interest and only 44 kids signed up to be Achievers.

When it comes to Activists, it has been a slightly easier sell. In fact, there were more Activists than Achievers. But even so, around 80 to 85 percent of the Activists come from private schools like KCD and Collegiate, and Ohayon doesn’t want this program becoming “high-income kids tutoring low-income kids.”

Oh, and it’s about 80 percent girls who volunteered.

But in general, JCPS hasn’t been letting the EJA team in the door to recruit. The most helpful schools only let them send a flyer to put on a bulletin board.

Ohayon and his team discovered that offering “free” tutoring just doesn’t sell well, so they repackaged the marketing to offer “$2,000 scholarships for tutoring” — the approximate worth of the program — and now they have 50 Achievers already on a waiting list.

So the pressure to recruit Activists is on. This year EJA has doubled its usual Americorps staff members, so now they will have six people working at the organization. They’re still looking for two more Americorps staff.

“They have to be very nimble,” Ohayon said. “Really idealistic people who want to be part of a startup.”

Of course none of this would be happening if it weren’t for a large amount of support they’ve received recently. Ohayon said, “In April, we were running on fumes and had, like, $1,000 in the bank account.”

The Gheens Foundation stepped in with a $50,000 loan. They received a $68,000 federal grant. CENS contributed $25,000, Metro United Way gave $10,000 and the city gave $7,500.

At the end of this month, they will check in with all of last year’s students to see who wants to stick with the program. They also will have an Activist training session on Wednesday, Aug. 3, for new volunteers.

Some day, Ohayon hopes to replicate this in other similar-sized cities.

High school students interested in tutoring or middle schoolers interested in receiving a tutoring scholarship can find out more information here.