When her suburban Dallas high school was forced to move online last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, Charvi Goyal realized that the schoolmates she'd been informally tutoring between classes would still need extra help but wouldn't necessarily be able to get it. So she took her tutoring online, as well.
Goyal, a 17-year-old high school junior from Plano, roped in three classmates to create TutorScope, a free tutoring service run by high schoolers for other kids, including younger ones. What started with a handful of instructors helping friends' siblings in their hometown has blossomed into a group of 22 tutors from Texas, Arizona, and Ohio that has helped more than 300 students from as far away as South Korea.
"I could foresee that schools were going to go virtual. And with that there were a couple of problems because the interactions between students and students, and students and teachers would be weakened," Goyal said.
TutorScope provides the one-on-one support that teachers have traditionally given while roving the aisles of their classrooms but now often can't because of the time and technology constraints posed by online schooling.
On a night near the end of the fall semester, tutor Avi Bagchi worked with 7-year-old twins Monika and Massey Newman on a reading comprehension lesson about discerning between fact and opinion. During their half-hour video chat, the 16-year-old Plano West Senior High School student provided the children from nearby Corinth with examples -- it's a fact that the pen is red but an opinion if one doesn't like it -- and reined them in when they got off topic a bit: Can't it be a fact that someone holds an opinion?
"I love candy. That's a fact …" said Massey, "… because it's true," he and his sister said in unison.
Their mother, social worker Sarah Newman, said the twins' TutorScope sessions have been really helpful and have freed up her and her 17-year-old son to focus on their own work.
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"With these tutors, I realize they have time," she said. "I think they are very patient with these younger kids, which I do not even have as a mother. I have patience in other things, (but) I don't have patience in the teaching."
Newman discovered TutorScope a few weeks into the fall semester on Nextdoor, a neighborhood-based social media app, and signed up her twins for sessions, which can be up to an hour each week per subject.
"At the time I was even looking for tutoring for them, like private tutoring, and every spot that I hit was too costly for those two kids. I'm like, I can't afford it," Newman said.
TutorScope isn't the first nonprofit to offer online tutoring and is just one of the workarounds people have come up with to educate kids during the pandemic, from a teacher in Nigeria who grades homework from around the world to a so-called sidewalk school in Mexico that offers online instruction to children, including some stuck at the border awaiting decisions on U.S. asylum requests.
What makes the TutorScope effort unique is the bond between the teenage volunteers and the peers they're helping.
"We kind of want to keep the whole `for students by students' thing really prominent since it provides a sort of solidarity. Because everyone is going through the same thing, you know that your tutor is also having the same struggles learning right now that you are," Goyal said.
The group accepts donations from adults but limits volunteers to students, including at least one college undergrad.
Now in their third semester, the TutorScope board has secured nonprofit status from the IRS and persuaded a software company to give them free access to a scheduling platform. Jessica Ding, 16, manages the website and parent emails, Angelina Ehara, 17, coordinates public outreach and social media, and Kaustubh Sonawane, 16, runs the signup process.
The tutors, for their part, get experience that will look great on a college or job application -- no small thing with many other extracurriculars shelved during the pandemic. They also get a sense of whether they might want to teach full-time or run a business or an NGO someday.
New tutors undergo limited training: they watch recordings of tutoring sessions. But Goyal's main request from prospective volunteers is a passion for helping the kids they tutor progress.
"Our system is pretty scalable. The only thing we really need to manage (2,000) students would be more tutors," Goyal said.
Although the pandemic has forced many students to retreat inward, Goyal said working with others on a big project has allowed her to look outwards.
"My confidence level has increased," said Goyal, adding that she's made friends with kids from her school whom she's never met in person. Furthermore, running a growing nonprofit "does help with the boredom" of being stuck at home, she said.