Nov 10, 2013 3:52 PM
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Moshe Ohayon founded the Louisville Tutoring Agency in St. Matthews in 2005, attracting students from families who can afford to pay up to $100 per hour for extra help to get through school or to prepare for college entrance exams.
In the evenings, Ohayon, who was born in Israel and grew up in California and South Carolina, volunteered at the Catholic Enrichment Center in western Louisville, tutoring less well-off students who, he found, had significant lapses in understanding of basic concepts.
"Learning gaps are something you find everywhere," Ohayon said. "But how far did I have to go back? I had to go back to fractions in some cases."
Those students didn't have the resources to pay for years of one-on-one tutoring. Yet, when it came to applying to college, they would have to compete against kids with the kinds of advantages Ohayon was providing to his daytime clientele.
That "ridiculous" disparity soon felt like a betrayal of the American dream that had brought his family to America, he said. "After a while it really starts to bother you."
So three years ago, Ohayon started Educational Justice, a nonprofit that provides, for free, a small group of disadvantaged students in Louisville with the same rigorous, multiyear tutoring that his students in the tutoring agency receive.
The local Center for Nonprofit Excellence recently awarded Ohayon its Art of Excellence in Vision award.
"Moshe, he is really impressive," said Kevin Connelly, executive director of the center. "It's a story of someone who's really talented, passionate ... and accomplishes things beyond what you would have given them any realistic hope to have done."
Sandra Martinez is one of the beneficiaries of Ohayon's work.
As a sophomore at Louisville's Central High, she had good grades and a strong work ethic, but her prospects of going to college were dim.
Her parents, who brought her to the United States as an undocumented immigrant when she was 7, couldn't afford tuition, and Martinez scored too low on an ACT practice test - 17 out of a possible 36 - to qualify for a significant scholarship.
But as an Educational Justice scholar, Martinez received thousands of hours of free, intensive tutoring over the next three years and raised her ACT score to 28. That qualified her for a full scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where she now is in her first semester, with plans to major in international economics and French.
If she hadn't found Educational Justice, "to be honest, I don't think college would be an option at all," Martinez said.
Ohayon said the goal is to level the playing field for students like Martinez who are highly motivated but need help developing test preparation skills. With Martinez, for example, he taught her strategies for excelling on the ACT; pushed her to take advanced math courses; and helped polish her college essays.
"Why do they have a 3.9 GPA but they're getting an average or below-average ACT score?" Ohayon said. "Those are students who are doing their homework and they don't understand why they're not getting ahead. They're not getting the same kinds of strategies."
David Linton, a counselor at Central who worked with Martinez, agreed that some students need extra help developing their standardized test-taking skills - and that it's an issue with far-reaching applications.
"Going from (a score in) the upper teens to the mid-20s could mean the difference between getting a $2,000 scholarship and a $20,000 scholarship," Linton said. "We're talking significant money."
As Ohayon started Educational Justice, counselors at Central helped identify a handful of students who might benefit, including Martinez.
Every day after school, as well as on Saturdays, she reported to the Educational Justice office in St. Matthews, where she got help with her homework and prepared for the ACT until 7 or 8 at night. Her parents provided transportation from their home near Iroquois Park.
"I want to tell you it's overnight," Ohayon said of Martinez's progress, but "no, it's work. She was here for years."
Martinez struggled with math, and at the time was stuck on a track that would keep her from taking calculus in high school. "It's really difficult to get out of the normal (math) track and into the advanced one," she said.
But Ohayon worked with Martinez, getting her through an online pre-calculus class in the summer before her senior year so she could qualify for calculus in the fall.
Martinez also got help with the SAT, ACT and her college essays. "(Ohayon) would tell me that I could do better, because there's always space to do better."
Cormel Floyd, an Educational Justice scholar who graduated last spring, raised his ACT score from 20 to 25. He took a bus to the tutoring center six days a week, showing up early on Saturdays to take practice tests under the same conditions as the real ACT.
"I had to keep working, keep studying, even when nobody else was doing it," Floyd said.
By the time he graduated, Floyd was named one of the mayor's outstanding high school seniors and received a full scholarship to the University of Louisville. He hopes to become a doctor.
"I come from a place that doesn't encourage dreams," said Floyd, who described an itinerant childhood in the Smoketown, Clarksdale and Shively areas with a single mom and two older sisters.
"That's what Moshe gave me - I had dreams, but he taught me to turn my dreams into goals," Floyd said. "I have no choice but to make my goals a reality."
In all, Ohayon estimated, the tutoring that Educational Justice students receive would cost $10,000 per year.
Because Educational Justice is an all-volunteer effort, Ohayon can only tutor three scholars at a time.
"We would love it if we could have 12 kids here a year," Ohayon said, but limited resources prevent that.
Still, he has found other ways to broaden his impact, working, for example, with administrators at schools such as Central High and Noe Middle to provide instruction to larger groups of students.
"The same strategies that we were teaching here (at Louisville Tutoring Agency), we thought we could take to the schools - just to level the playing field a little bit," Ohayon said.
Since 2011, Educational Justice volunteers have held six-week ACT classes for more than 100 students, teaching them strategy and content for the test. According to Linton, students who stuck with the classes and worked on their own outside of the sessions saw gains of 5 to 10 points.
"He made my students feel like they could do it," Tamela Compton, a counselor at Central, said of Ohayon. "He teaches them strategies for digging out the information that they already had in them."
Linton and Ohayon also are working on instructing Central High teachers in ACT strategy. "He's just one person," Linton said. "He can only serve so many students."
Another Educational Justice initiative aims to help even younger students who are struggling academically by pairing them with high school seniors who are top academic performers. "If we can start to get them back on track in middle school, they would have a much better chance at a better life," Ohayon said.
For the senior mentors, the program qualifies as community service - both a chance to give back and something to write about in college essays.
Last year, in a pilot program, the organization made about 25 matches between students at Central, Seneca, Sacred Heart and Manual high schools and children at Myers Middle School and several community centers. Educational Justice hopes to expand the program in the current school year.
Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools, said Educational Justice is one of many outside resources that he'd like to see expanded because it is one "that we know works."
It can't happen quickly enough for Ohayon.
"Do I ever feel the frustration that we're not getting to more students?" he said. "Yes, I feel that all the time."
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