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Amid distance learning travails last spring, several South Salem students created a tutoring service, and they are taking it statewide

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Left to right, Connect Oregon Students founders Pranav Ramesh, Esha Puri and Luke Clifton.A pilot peer-tutoring service conceived amid distance-learning difficulties is now unfolding statewide, and its three student founders our spearheading that move.

South Salem High School seniors Pranav Ramesh, Esha Puri, and Luke Clifton created Connect Oregon Students (ConnectOregonStudents.org) last spring when the recognized scholastic problems that stemmed from COVID-19 related school closures and the subsequent implementation of a distance-learning model.

Their idea was to line up older students, primarily high school juniors and seniors, who could provide younger students help with their lessons.

It worked.

At the pilot's peak, 50 to 75 Salem-Keizer School District students were helped by 15 tutors as they negotiated through the new and unfamiliar distance-learning model.

"The three of us were having difficulties adapting to the new online learning platform that was implemented amid COVID-19," noted Luke, son of John and Nicole Clifton. "In May, we decided to pilot our program, ConnectSalemStudents, which offered peer-support/tutoring services to students across the Salem-Keizer School District."

Luke said the trio surmised that if they were struggling with adapting to the new platform, others must be as well.

They were right.

"We imagined what kind of difficulties younger kids were having, or kids without devices," said Esha, daughter of Ashish and Radhika Puri.

"What we did was, first we created the website so we'd have a platform to redirect students and volunteers," Esha said. "We contacted all the principals in the school district's k-12 (classes), and we told them what we were doing, so they sent their students to us.

"For elementary students, we don't have to teach them a super-hard subject like algebra or something. If their parents want, we can just go through some reading strategies," she added.

Pranav, son of Ramesh and Swapna Ramesh, feels that peer mentoring is less intimidating for many young students, and it has the advantages of empathy.

"And it's totally okay if you're having trouble, and that's why we're here to help you," pranav said.

He said the summer break afforded the three of them ample time to work through ambitious plans to implement their vision and pilot project statewide. They routinely meet to work on the project, often at area parks and places that easily accommodate safe social distancing practices.

Mentoring mentors

The pilot project's tutors hailed from South Salem and West Salem high schools. Luke said they were helped considerably by the support of their principal.

"The three of us have been lucky to work with our spectacular principal at South Salem High School, Mrs. Lara Tiffin, who has been vital in encouraging us and aiding us in creating a safe, successful platform," Luke said.

The principal said the pilot's success was entirely in the hands of the founders. All three routinely kept busy with extracurricular activities, such as DECA, Key Club, Model U.N. The pandemic dried those up as well, freeing up their time for the tutoring project.

"This idea is entirely their own," Lara said. "All three students are motivated, bright and compassionate young adults whose schedules freed up a bit when all of our activities were canceled in the spring. Impressively, though not surprisingly, they chose to fill their time by creating a service that can help others."

Program expansion

With word getting out, the pilot is growing. Luke said within one 24 hour period during the first week in August they saw more than 40 new students sign up for help.

"And that's during the summer, so you can imagine what the need will be during the school year," he stressed.

Esha said the new students have also hailed locations outside of Salem, including Gresham, Beaverton and Central Oregon, while they've also heard from volunteer tutors from Beaverton and Lake Oswego.

"So people are really becoming engaged in this," she said.

The Connect Oregon Students website contains the sign-up form for both those needing learning help and those volunteering tutorial services. The site also has a "Locations" tab that includes an Oregon map depicting seven zones statewide that serves to further regionalize the tutorial support.COURTESY OF CONNECT OREGON STUDENTS - Founders of Connect Oregon Students envision offering tutorial help to younger k-12 students statewide. They have divided the state into seven distinct zones: 1. Portland Metro; 2. Willamette Valley; 3. Coast; 4. Central; 5. Southern; 6. The Gorge; 7. Eastern.

"Our student base is mostly comprised of middle-and-elementary-age students, typically inquiring on reading comprehension or math. We have also had many peer-support requests from this group," Luke told the Woodburn Independent. "We are always looking for new tutors, and we would love to see Woodburn juniors and seniors to help out.

"Our biggest passion, as a group, is to work together to have a positive impact on students throughout the state."

The students' advisor feels Connect Oregon Students can fill an important demand.

"Tutoring can be very expensive. It can also be intimidating for some students to ask an adult tutor for help," Lara said. "By providing a free peer tutoring service, they have made the academic support more accessible to everyone."

She also feels their teamwork and skills make them the right students for the job.

"Due to their organizational abilities, generosity and drive, I have no doubt that Esha, Pranav and Luke will be able to meet the demands caused by an increased need for tutoring support this fall," Lara added.

Connect Oregon Students

To learn more about the statewide free tutoring service or to volunteer to help mentor students struggling with the distance-learning model, visit www.connectoregonstudents.org.


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