In 2011, Louisville Tutoring Agency’s Moshe Ohayon and his volunteers provided more than 4,000 hours of free tutoring and test-prep services to underserved students in Louisville.
The Louisville Tutoring Agency is perhaps the most elite tutoring and test prep program in town, typically serving students of middle and upper class backgrounds from the city’s most exclusive private schools. At the average going rate for an hour of tutoring or instruction at the Agency, that’s volunteer time valued at close to $300,000.
This is a program that Ohayon started in 2010. It’s called Educational Justice, and it was supposed to be a “little side project,” but it has turned into a mission.
Ohayon immigrated from Israel with his family when he was eight years old. Both his mother and father had been teachers in Israel, but when they arrived in the U.S., they struggled.
But they never let up when it came to making education a priority.
When Ohayon graduated from high school in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he figured he was more than reasonably prepared for an education at Columbia University in New York City.
“But in truth, I had learning gaps,” he says.
Ohayon spent his first year at Columbia playing catch-up to get on par with his classmates. By the time he felt caught up, he realized that he had a knack for breaking down complicated material and teaching it to others. So, he got an on-campus job tutoring first-year students in the Engineering School, helping them filling their own gaps.
After Ohayon graduated from Columbia with a degree in Physics, he moved to Louisville, where his parents had relocated while he was in college. He started working as a tutor in a supplemental services program created as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, at community centers around the city. When his job dried up, Ohayon stuck around. And in 2005, he started Louisville Tutoring Agency.
It was during this time, while working largely with private school, upper and middle class students at his Louisville Tutoring and working with underserved students from low-income areas at the community centers that Ohayon became stunningly aware of educational inequity.
“It was thrust in my face on a daily basis,” he says.
Private school parents, says Ohayon, pay lots of money for ACT prep, SAT prep, college application help. “Going to college, for these kids, is as inevitable as going from sixth to seventh grade,” says Ohayon.
But for the kids at the community center, “college seems like this remote dream.”
Ohayon knew he had the power to help.
“The original goal was not to create a non-profit,” he says. “It was just a very small project.”
Ohayon started seeking out high-achieving students, particularly students with a mismatch between high grades and low test scores. “That’s a red flag,” he says.
He called the program “EJ Scholars” – EJ, as in Educational Justice. He found two students and brought those kids to the Louisville Tutoring Agency on a “full scholarship.” These kid received the same sort of assistance at the agency that their private school counterparts received. Test prep. Application help. Academic tutoring. Study skills help.
“It’s about a $4000 a semester value,” says Ohayon.
“Thus far, three of our EJ Scholars have been Governor’s Scholars, and two of them have received scholarships to UofL,” says Sarah Schaffer, Educational Program Director for Educational Justice. “Most notably, one of our scholars, Sandra, has raised her ACT score by 10 points since beginning the program and was recently accepted into Emory.”
But when administrators saw the work Ohayon was doing for these high-achieving students, they asked if he could help the underperforming students as well.
So, using the tools that he’d created for his private test prep clients, Ohayon crafted a 3 or 4 session ACT test-taking strategies program and began taking it out to schools.
The program saw immediate results: in just four or fewer sessions with Ohayon, scores rose an average of 2 points.
(The high score on an ACT is a 36. The national average is around a 21. 25% of students enrolled in the University of Louisville have an ACT score of 21 or lower.)
The West End School asked Ohayon to come and work with their boys. He taught them a linguistics-based test prep course. “Many of these students come from a non-standard dialectical home,” he says. And again, he saw massive improvement in scores.
Demand continued to increase for test prep and tutoring for these underachieving kids. Pretty soon, Ohayon looked to expand his “project” into a full non-profit. He recognized that there were two problems that could potentially solve each other.
Problem one: the Educational Justice “project” relied totally on volunteers. “All non-profits have this problem,” he says. “Volunteers are invaluable but unreliable. The kids want to see the same person over and over.”
Problem two: many high schools or high school programs in Louisville require students to perform service hours. But available service opportunities are often, as Ohayon says, laughable. It’s picking up trash in a park for a single afternoon. It’s one day of reading to little kids in a nursery school. Service opportunities for young people rarely engage their intellect or their imagination. “There must be a way to channel this resource,” says Ohayon.
So as part of the Educational Justice program, Ohayon created an honors society called EJ Mentors. This program will kick off soon and round out the 2012-13 school year on a trial basis. They hope to have it fully up and running throughout the JCPS system for the 2013-14 school year.
There’s an application process to become an EJ Mentor, and only the “best of the best” high school juniors and seniors are accepted. As part of the program, you are required to mentor and tutor a middle school student for an entire school year, once a week.
Educational Justice has launched a web app for this program where Mentors post profiles. Middle school students, called “Achievers,” can browse through profiles and choose their own Mentor. Ohayon also envisions this same app tracking the Mentors’ service hours and providing attendance data for the younger students’ teachers.
EJ Mentors earn service hours– ones that engage them intellectually and creatively. Mentors also are given access to many of the programs that Louisville Tutoring Agency and Educational Justice offer at either a discount or free. There are incentives for them to participate and incentives for their families to support them.
For the most part, say Ohayon and Schaffer, funding these programs has largely been a matter of them “pulling out of our pockets.” But they’re working on ways to raise more funds.
Educational Justice participated in and won the January PossSoupBility– an event where non-profits pitch their ideas to a soup-eating crowd that votes on the best pitch. The winner of PossSoupBility takes home the entire admission fee.
“It was $1350,” says Ohayon, “but for us it was like winning millions of dollars.”
At the end of May, just in time for the June testing date for the ACTs, Ohayon will be offering a week’s worth of ACT prep classes as a fundraiser for Educational Justice. Each evening, Ohayon will give a 2 hour lecture and lesson on each of the four subject matter tests: English, Math, Reading and Science. For a $79 donation to Educational Justice, you can attend one class; for a $200 donation you can attend the whole four-day series. Ohayon himself will be teaching the classes, and he wrote the book on ACT test-prep (well, maybe not “the” book, but “a” book). It was published last December and is called ACT for Bad Test Takers.
Classes will be held at Metro United Way, 334 E. Broadway from 6 p.m.- 7:30 p.m., May 28 – 31. All funds raised for the series go directly to support Educational Justice’s services.