By giving up a few hours of freedom each weekend, local high school students are hoping to make a big difference in the academic achievement of many elementary school children in Fairfax County.
A group of students from several public high schools have created a free mentoring and tutoring program as a way to help children from low-income families with school work. The program hosts multiple two-hour study sessions on Saturdays and Sundays, and is geared primarily to students in elementary school, with a few seventh- and eighth-graders also attending.
The students-helping-students program is organized and managed by students.
“We don’t only tutor. We are also inspiring them as leaders to give back [to their communities],” said Abrar Omeish, 16, a junior at Robinson Secondary School. She is a co-founder of GIVE Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education — which is the student group leading the tutoring efforts.
During tutoring sessions, when students take a snack break provided by GIVE volunteers, tutors talk to the elementary students as a group about issues in their community such as environmental conservation and ways they can help or give back at their own schools, Omeish said.
Since its founding last year, GIVE has drawn volunteer tutors from as many 10 ten of the school system’s 25 regular high schools.
The program began as a collaboration of two individual free tutoring programs started by Omeish and co-founder Kevin Cao, 16, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Beginning in October, GIVE expanded its efforts from hosting tutoring sessions only at the Mason District Government Center in Annandale to a countywide program. As a result, GIVE members said they are seeing more students donating time to help more of their younger peers.
“We had a very high demand after the first year. We originally had maybe 15 kids [come to be tutored]. But after that year, we had 70 kids show up,” Cao said.
Each tutoring session draws about 30 to 35 elementary school students. The goal is to pair them one-on-one with high school tutors. During any given weekend GIVE’s 90 to 100 tutors help about 150 kids with homework, Cao said.
“I was inspired to found GIVE after I volunteered at Belvedere [Elementary School in Falls Church],” he said. “There weren’t a lot of resources available for free.”
Although GIVE primarily tutors students from low-income homes, student volunteers said the demographics and ages of students are diverse.
“A lot of the parents maybe don’t speak English and don’t understand the [curriculum] material,” Cao said.
Omeish added, “That’s one of our major concerns. At my [tutoring] center, we have a lot of parents who may be well off [financially] but they just moved to the country and don’t understand the curriculum.”
To help match the supply of tutors with the demand from elementary school students, GIVE members have been reaching out to schools through existing organizations such as high schools’ National Honors Societies.
Woodson’s National Honors Society picks a service project to support each year, said senior David Tannenbaum, 18, who is president of the society.
“It’s really awesome. I’ve noticed — beyond the teaching of regular school work — the kids tell me about their school day,” he said. “One of my kids tells me about his girl troubles.”
Tannenbaum said through tutoring, he has bonded with his children.
Fellow Woodson senior Mariela Mannion, 18, who is vice president of the National Honor Society, also volunteers on weekends. GIVE is a quick and fun way for seniors to complete service hour requirements to graduate, usually about 10 to 15 hours, she said.
“It really teaches me patience. I forgot what it’s like to be that age and not really get [lessons],” she said, adding a lot of the children she tutors have not had the same economic advantages as she has, nor the push from parents to put school first.
“I would definitely recommend it because it’s really flexible and you really get to know the students,” Mannion said.
University of Virginia sophomore Colvin Wang, 19, was at Sunday’s tutoring session in Annandale. Wang was among the Thomas Jefferson students to start the group Study Buddies, which eventually became GIVE.
“We started with five kids,” he said. “I was surprised at how much work it took to get people to come. Even when you advertise it as free.”
Moving forward, GIVE volunteers are filing tax forms to become an official nonprofit. They also are raising donations for side projects, including a book drive, said junior Kartik Gupta, 16, who attends Thomas Jefferson.
“We collected unwanted SAT and exam books,” he said. The book drive began last year, primarily at Jefferson, with about 50 exam prep books being donated.
Gupta, Cao, Omeish, and Jefferson students Saniya Suri, a junior, and Samya Jothishankar, a junior, make up GIVE’s board of directors.
“[GIVE] is a rewarding experience and you really do help a student who needs help,” Gupta said. “There are some really touching stories. There are some kids who were failing and might have needed to be held back” a grade level before getting help from GIVE volunteers.
Junior Sebastian Lerner, 16, also a Jefferson student, was among the first volunteers tutoring for GIVE.
“This and school are basically my main priorities,” he said. “It’s just a lot of fun. That’s the one reason I keep coming back. Even though I don’t get to tutor all the kids, it’s fun to see all of them all smiling.”