For the Students, By the Students
An Interview with Leah Solomon, Founder of After the School Bell
Your average eleventh-grader’s life is full of tests and homework, chessed hours, and G.O. activities. Balance that with driver’s ed, piano lessons, helping out at home, and the occasional family simchah, and you’ve got a very full schedule.
Think that’s a lot?
Meet Leah Solomon. She’s a junior at Manhattan High School for Girls and the founder of After the School Bell, an online organization that pairs volunteer high school students with elementary school students for weekly tutoring sessions. Leah started out as a volunteer tutor herself for a secular organization. When she realized there was no similar organization within the Orthodox world, she sprung to fill that void, creating a successful platform that helps dozens of students each week in communities throughout the United States and beyond. While her schedule may be fuller than most of her peers’, Leah’s foray into the educational world has granted her the unique brand of satisfaction that is the result of spurring success, one student at a time.
What inspired you to launch After the School Bell?
When I was in ninth grade, my friend told me about a secular online tutoring organization that serviced underprivileged youth. Her school had sent her information about it, and she was signing up to volunteer as a tutor; she thought it might be something I’d be interested in as well. I began tutoring a third grader and found that I really enjoyed it, and the student and I both gained a lot from our sessions. I wondered why the Orthodox community didn’t have a similar program. Private tutoring is often unaffordable and isn’t always easily accessible. I knew there was a need in our community for a program that would allow students to be tutored by volunteers. Once COVID hit, there was an even greater need for that service – so I decided I’d start my own online tutoring program.
How did you begin putting that idea into action?
During COVID, a group called Klal Ventures advertised in some Jewish publications that they were accepting proposals for initiatives that would help the Jewish community. We submitted a proposal and, baruch Hashem, it was accepted. Klal Ventures gave us a grant and helped us find a web developer and build a website.
Once we had the funding, I reached out to a bunch of educators – some of whom I knew from my elementary school – and to chessed coordinators in local high schools, to gauge interest. I asked things like whether they thought girls would be interested in signing up and what would be the best way to do that. It gave us a better sense of what we needed to do and the problems that could potentially arise.
How long did it take to get the program up and running?
Klal Ventures was really efficient; they responded to our proposal within three days. We submitted the proposal in July 2020 and by November we had enough things in place to start contacting educators. We had our first tutor-student match in January 2021, right after winter break.
How did you find your tutors and students?
Most high schools have chessed programs in place that require or incentivize their students to volunteer for a certain number of hours in various capacities. We created flyers that were given out at chessed fairs, and I spoke to the coordinators. Many of our volunteers signed up through programs like those. Once we had the tutors on board, we approached the elementary schools and let them know that we had a service available that would allow their students to access nearly free tutoring with an easy online signup process.
Which schools are you in?
We started pilot programs in my elementary school, Shulamith School for Girls in the Five Towns and in HALB, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, and from there we branched out to other schools in New York and New Jersey. We now service schools across the United States, in 10 different states. including some in California, Florida, and Oregon. We have one student in Israel and one in Canada.
How many tutors and students have enrolled?
We currently have more than 110 tutors and between 70 and 80 students. We’re working with schools and organizations to further increase that number.
Who funds your program?
Klal Ventures helped with funding our initial costs, but we are also privately funded. When we started out, we wanted to be a free service, but we quickly realized that it was not possible to remain self-sufficient without charging a small fee to maintain the ongoing costs of running the website. We now charge 18 dollars per month per student to keep our website running and cover other costs we incur in addition to a very modest school fee.
How many sessions are included?
Ideally there are four sessions per month, one per week. Sometimes the scheduling doesn’t work out, but the fee is per month, not per session.
How long is a typical session?
The average weekly session is around 45 minutes. Younger students tend to have a hard time sitting through a long session, so the tutors might choose to do two shorter sessions each week instead. It really depends on the match and what works for the tutor and the student, but the minimum is 45 minutes per week.
What ages do you service?
Our students are in grades one through eight, and our tutors are in grades nine and up.
Is there any sort of screening process in place for your tutors?
On the application, we ask the tutors why they want to do this and what motivates them. They need to agree to commit to weekly sessions. They need to provide a teacher, principal, rabbi, or rebbetzin as a reference who can vouch for them so we know they’re responsible and will follow through on their commitment. Students who voluntarily sign up for this, as all of ours do, are comfortable with tutoring and are usually good at it as well.
After every session, the tutor and student fill out a short online survey to make sure there are no technical issues and that they are compatible. We read through all of those and respond to them, so if there are any issues, we deal with them relatively quickly.
How do you match tutors and students?
On the students’ profiles it lists their grade and the subject in which they need help. The tutors get to choose who they work with. When they meet, they elaborate more on the specifics of what they need and discuss how to move forward with the learning. Boys in grades one through four can be paired with girls, but once they are older than that, they are paired with boys.
Which conferencing platform do you use?
For safety reasons, we ask that our tutors hold their sessions over Google Meet. Google Meet has unique encryption keys for every session, which means that once they create a link it cannot be replicated. Only the people with the link can access the session, and once the session is over the link expires. We hope that once we have the funds to update our website, we’ll be able to integrate our own conferencing platform that can be monitored by us.
Do you still tutor?
Not anymore, unfortunately. I don’t have time for tutoring these days; most of my free time is dedicated to running After the School Bell. This year we built a small management team of volunteer high school and college students. They’ve been helping me with all the monitoring, emails, and applications. It’s a group effort!
What did you like most about tutoring?
I like learning and I especially like that feeling you get when you’re working on something and “get” it. I love being able to give that feeling to other kids. When I had the opportunity to tutor in ninth grade, I jumped at it.
How do you juggle all your responsibilities?
I think it’s a balance. There’s a phrase that really speaks to me: “Work smart, not hard.” Managing my workload is mostly about time management. I need to make sure that my schoolwork gets done before I log in to answer emails or make phone calls, so to make that happen I get a lot of my work done at school, on the bus, or on Sundays. My responsibilities and workload have been growing along with the program, which is why we created a management team.
I spend about 10 to 12 hours a week running After the School Bell. I check emails and applications from tutors and students, check references, read surveys, respond to questions, deal with website issues, and reach out to teachers and educators to introduce the program. Some nights it feels like a race to get it all done.
Are your parents still involved?
Yes, very much so. As a student, I can’t take calls during the day, so my dad fills in for me. He also makes a lot of introductions to educators to bring the program to new schools. My mom works on the legal and financial end of things. We filed as a nonprofit last year, and my mom handled that together with a pro bono legal team. It’s been quite the learning experience for all of us.
What’s your favorite subject?
I’m not sure I have one, so I guess I’d say I like them all!
Do you love learning?
Yes, in the right environment.
Does that mean if the teacher is interesting?
What are you doing when you’re not at school or working on After the School Bell?
I play piano. I read a lot. I like working with kids, so on Shabbos I join my shul’s youth groups and run a group in the afternoon. They also started a group for kids with special needs in my community about a month and a half ago, and I volunteer there.
Is there anything you would like to say to parents about helping their kids succeed?
From my standpoint, being in the background, I’d say that the success of the tutoring is half reliant on the tutors and whether they can communicate effectively with the students and half reliant on the parents and whether they’re on top of things and following up with the tutor. Tutors rely on the parents to be in touch with the teacher and send the material to the tutor. I’ve seen with the matches on the website that the tutors who are the most successful are the ones who are communicating well with the parents and teachers. It’s like a partnership.
What’s your advice to students?
There are people who can help you; you just have to be willing to work with them. It can be your parents, your teachers, your friends… be on the lookout for people who can help you in the areas you need and be open to their assistance.
A lot of students think that if they’re not good at a subject right now, they’ll never be good at it. Everyone thinks like that to some extent. On the application we ask the tutors to describe what motivates them, and we’ve had a lot of people write things along the lines of, “When I was younger, I received tutoring, and now I’d like to give that to others.” They’re now helping other students with subjects that they struggled with in the past. You don’t need to be the best student to help another student. If you’re having a hard time with calculus, for example, that doesn’t mean you’re not a “math person.” You can still help a second grader with basic addition and subtraction. And if you’re struggling with something now that doesn’t mean you can’t master it. That struggle doesn’t have to stay with you forever. You can become good at it and help other people become good at it, too.
It’s basic psychology. When you tell yourself that you’re just not good at something, that becomes your reality. If you tell yourself you’re just not a “math person”, you’ll never advance in it because you don’t feel the need to become better. You may be struggling with it now, but once you get it, you can become that math person.
Do you relate differently to kids now that you’re in constant contact with educators?
I guess so. I definitely see it when interacting with my own teachers and principals; I suppose I see things from a different perspective now. I’ve spoken to so many teachers that when I talk to my own teachers it’s easier for me to understand where they’re coming from.
What are some advantages of a student-run program?
Educators have a lot of insight, but sometimes kids can feel like they don’t understand our concerns because they’re not in our situation. As a student, I know how frustrating it can be with so much homework, and how hard it can be to be a student. I spoke at a school in Queens, and I said, “I know how hard it can be to give up 45 minutes of your week, but you can do it.” It makes them relate to me; they know I’m on the same schedule as them.
How would you like to see ATSB grow?
Our goal is to reach keep growing. We want to enlist more tutors and more students. We’d like our program to reach as more schools. It’s really so easy to sign up, it’s all online and personalized, and it benefits both the students and their tutors. We know that there is such a great need in the Orthodox community for affordable and accessible tutoring, and my goal is to bring that to as many people as possible.
What’s the best part about running your program?
Knowing that I’m helping other students succeed. The feedback has been amazing, and it really keeps me going. I’ll share a comment on our website from one of our tutors: “Tutoring has been incredibly gratifying for me, watching my student gain understanding and self-confidence, and the smile that breaks out on her face when she does a difficult problem on her own. I love knowing I contributed to that.” That’s exactly why I started After the School Bell and why we keep working to help it continue to grow.
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