Monday, May 27, 2024

Boston Covid-Tutoring volunteer Zoey Liu works with Sage Doherty in a lesson that incluedes Dr. Suess’ “The Lorax.” (Image: Boston Covid-Tutoring)

It was just in April that a group of Buckingham, Browne & Nichols students came up with the idea of starting a tutoring service. And already their Boston Covid-Tutoring has a slick website, growing relationships with regional nonprofits, some hundred volunteers – and signups from elementary through high schoolers seeking academic help from as far as Belmont, Dorchester, Dedham, Malden and Taunton.

Every class is free, with a focus on helping people less well off economically as well as academically, as envisioned originally by three juniors at BB&N, a private day school in the Observatory Hill neighborhood: founder David Min, Nathan Bornstein (now credited as chief operating officer) and Dan Bi (chief technology officer).

“We were struggling with the pandemic and being online and not being able to go to classes. And it kind of made us realize that there are so many kids and families out there who must be struggling even more than us,” Bornstein recalled by phone Friday.

Tutoring volunteer Ben Kahn may have taught with “Curious George” books, but is now gearing up to teach a business course. (Image: Boston Covid-Tutoring)

Quickly, “we had our website up, which was the most important thing, and from there people started reaching out, saying, ‘Oh, this group of high school kids is offering this cool tutoring service to kids who would benefit from it, would you be interested?’ From there, it just kind of grew, mainly by word of mouth,” he said.

With most tutees in elementary or middle school, the biggest demand for help is in math and reading, followed by learning a second language. “We’re lucky enough that a bunch of our volunteers have studied a second language,” Bornstein said. While Spanish has been the most popular language request, tutors can offer lessons in French, Mandarin and even Latin.

Erin Moriarty, an elementary school teacher in Watertown, connected her son Danny with a BCT tutor after the coronavirus shutdown caused Danny to miss nearly a third of his first-grade learning. “I thought any extra help would be great,” Moriarty said Sunday. “He missed so much phonics.”

The experience with tutor Costas Labrinos “worked out great. Danny felt so connected,” she said. “The fact that it was free was a huge help – tutoring can be so expensive.”

The model is so powerful that she is considering trying to set up one like it in Watertown, she said, and her father consulted with Boston Covid-Tutoring to explore setting one up for disadvantaged learners in Florida.

From tutoring to classes


All told, the website lists more then 20 tutoring subjects in six broad categories including standardized test prep, right up to precalculus, chemistry and analytical and creative essay writing. It’s all offered through the Zoom video conferencing platform, which is free for extended one-on-one use and has so far been largely trouble free, Bornstein said.

A bloc of lessons in computer science has been popular, mainly among middle schoolers, and BCT is preparing to branch out further from its one-on-one sessions with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s professional-grade Zoom capacity. “Another cool thing that we’re starting: a business course. Some of our volunteers have offered their time to work with a group of maybe five to 10 students,” Bornstein said. “We found that maybe kids and families would appreciate a time when their kids can open up and meet some other kids and have time to converse, as well as learn a cool subject.”

“A huge part of this is creating relationships, especially during a time of isolation. We’ve heard from families that it’s been great to have someone for their kids to look up to, especially during this time,” Bornstein said.

Tutor Ben Khan’s syllabus for the upcoming business course shows a fast-moving survey of everything from “saving for a rainy day” to retirement accounts and how to invest in the stock market – but then, everything the student group does shows accomplishment and maturity. The website is better than much of what you stumble across online (“a few of the management kids coded it using CSS and JavaScript,” Bornstein said), and the group’s public relations apparatus is prepared with access to leaders, quotes and publication-ready images. It would be the envy of many professional nonprofits.

Eager to grow

The work has paid off, and now it’s not just the hometowns of tutees that is expanding, but the base of tutors as well. There are college students contributing, including recent recruits from Boston University, Bornstein said. Showing the benefit of virtual learning – and “so far, we’ve been pretty lucky with technology and haven’t had too many problems” – BCT just signed a tutor from California.

The group is eager for still more. It’s partnered with the nonprofit Immigrant Learning Center in Malden and is exploring connections with a foundation offering music lessons to under-resourced kids and a student program at the Dedham Country Day School that wants to transition from in-person tutoring. Bornstein described outreach efforts to mutual aid groups and schools, listings on the Boston Public Library and Belmont Helps websites, and the exploration of branches in Naples, Florida, and Los Angeles among students who want to follow the BCT model.

“It’s all about doing good, putting ourselves out there and doing what we can right now,” Bornstein said.