Aston Student Tutors is a nonprofit organization with a mission of “providing education services for students by students.” This relatively new and novel group of students is based in my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, where they seek to enrich the public school sector with knowledge and resources not always readily accessible to underprivileged students. Lincoln has one of the best public-school systems in the nation, yet with the rapidly growing number of kids joining the system every year it often falls short of paying every individual the necessary academic attention for success, especially if the student isn’t outright failing.
I learned about Aston from the President, and my friend, Layla Omari. Layla joined in the starting of the tutoring group because of her own disenchantment with the school system and students that often get lost in it, both here in Nebraska and abroad in Jordan, where the majority of her extended family resides.
In a sit-down interview with Layla and her fellow board members, I was able to learn more about Aston’s plans for growth in Nebraska and internationally. What follows is a conversation with the founder, Dalton Hellwege; the CEO, Tan Phan; and the President, Layla Omari.
Muslim Girl: Tell me a little about the logistics of this project? How did you start?
Dalton: We started off by talking to our principal actually, and he immediately thought it was a great idea. We decided to pursue it with the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS), and we actually had a meeting with our superintendent, Dr. Steve Joel. He loved it too. Then we had more meetings with LPS and it didn’t go a long way.
Layla: They’re very strict with how they run things and a lot of the things we want to do with tutoring are hard to access with LPS. We’re going the nonprofit route, because we can reach more schools in Nebraska as a nonprofit and have a greater impact.
Dalton: We talked to our 29 Community Learning Centers (CLC) in Lincoln, and we’re starting our pilot at Campbell Elementary. From there, we want to tweak our program the best we can so we’re ready for the school year, and so we can branch out to every other CLC. And from there, we’d like to see where it goes. We’d like to hit Hastings, Waverly, Grand Island, and a couple other schools in Nebraska.
We want to start this ASAP because we see this as a need for every kid. The US is falling behind on educational standards. tweet
Layla: Right now, during the summer we’re getting a couple of our tutors and executive members to go mentor at Campbell. They have an academic program as part of their summer camp. We’re trying to get a feel for the students we’re going to be tutoring and the environment. So when we send in more tutors in the fall, they’ll have an idea of what they’re going into. Additionally, Tan and I are working on an international tutoring program too.
Tan: We have an online curriculum posting via Zoom. We have Math, Reading, and English for students in Vietnam and Jordan because that’s where me and her [Layla] are from. Our online curriculum will be on our website which we plan to be a point of centralization. It will include a place to apply to be a tutor or to request a tutor. It will also include all tutoring locations. We plan on stressing safety. The places, libraries or public schools, will have supervision. We also plan on logging times that tutoring is taking place and keeping tracking of who’s tutoring who.
Layla: So a main reason we’re going through the CLCs and the libraries is because there’s already supervision there. We have people who have gone through background checks through LPS and different programs that will be helping out. So we want to stress safety in that respect.
Dalton: But we don’t want to take safety to the point where it disrupts our learning environment. Because if you’re too focused on safety you can’t get anything done, which is kind of why we strayed away from LPS. We want to start this ASAP because we see this as a need for every kid. The US is falling behind on educational standards. I had a private mentor for Math in middle school and she was from Russia. And she was telling me how they take Advanced Algebra as eighth graders, while here in the US, it’s standard to take it as a sophomore or junior. I want to push every kid to understand, at least, what we’re doing right now, so we can maybe in the future catch up.
What is your process for tutor selection?
We interview our tutors, we talk to their teachers and get a valid recommendation in order to ensure we have the best possible tutoring for our students. tweet
Layla: Our tutor selection process. We get tutors who specifically want GoPo (government and politics) hours. And if they want to tutor in a subject they have to have at least a B or higher in their class so we’re sending in informed tutors. We interview our tutors, we talk to their teachers and get a valid recommendation in order to ensure we have the best possible tutoring for our students. Another really great thing about getting student tutors in LPS is that they’ve gone through the same curriculum, so they know a lot more than outside tutoring programs that might not be as specific.
Dalton: They can have a much better tutoring experience. Like, I can do a much better job teaching pre-calc since I’ve gone through the class than someone that’s, say, 45 and maybe took a different pre-calc class, since curriculums change so much over the years.
Tan: We have a tutoring application on our website where tutors can tell us about their passions and what they hope to get out of the experience. The tutor also submits a resume. What we can do is match their experiences with the needs of students.
Dalton: We’re giving the students a chance to bond with their tutors. When I was in middle school or elementary school, I would see a high schooler and think “wow, he’s so cool.” We’re giving them the opportunity to learn from their tutors, not just academically, but socially. The students might become more open and feel more comfortable trying new things or feel more relaxed in class as a result.
Layla: We’re sending in good role models who want to help and set good examples for the students.
Have you gone through the selection process yet?
Dalton: We’re in the first couple steps because we’re still a new and fresh program. I see it getting better and better, so that by the time the school year starts, we’ll be fully prepared for anything coming our way.
Layla: We already have a lot of people interested in helping out with the program. We got approved to be a nonprofit a month ago, so we’re still getting a feel for how things work. We’re working on finding ways to maximize our impact in the Nebraska community and globally.
How do you raise money as a nonprofit?
Dalton: We opened up a bank account at “Cattle Bank and Trust”. The owner reached out to me. I had given him our website not knowing he was the owner, and he said he was really interested in what we were doing. He wants to have a sit down, so I think that would be a great way to get some of our fundraising going.
Layla: There’s a nonprofit here in Lincoln, “Matters on Tomorrow”, whose sole purpose is to get monetary donations for other nonprofits we have been in contact with.
With time we can perfect our program. tweet
Dalton: I’m also in contact with a nonprofit in Lincoln which deals with data collection. With that, we hope to track volunteer hours and tutors safely and securely.
How do you plan on dealing with hiccups in the future?
Dalton: Right now we are focused on trial and error. Might as well try everything we can right off the bat. If something doesn’t work we’ll just try something else until we find what works. Everything will eventually need adjusting until we figure out what works. With time we can perfect our program.
Tan: Right now, we have a team of seven people. We have meetings where we discuss next steps and if we have a problem, we’ll meet with the team and discuss how to best deal with it.
Where do you see your program going once it’s established?
Dalton: We have a vision of expansion, we don’t want to be stuck at one school. The 29 CLC schools in Lincoln are a great start for the first semester. We plan on then expanding out of Lincoln and hitting the schools that need us most in surrounding areas. Touching base with as many students as possible is our goal.
Layla: We want to make sure our students are actually learning through our program. We want to use our pilot program at Campbell to see how our program is received by the students, and how effective it really is so we can adjust accordingly. We want to discuss student progress with teachers and make sure we’re running a program that is impactful. We’re getting a feel for how our program will logistically be run.
Touching base with as many students as possible is our goal. tweet
Tan: Once we expand, we’ll have district leaders who will manage specific schools and make sure each school is receiving necessary attention.
Dalton: Every school is different and has different leadership, so we need to adapt accordingly. For example, Layla will be in control of Campbell once the school year starts. She’ll be in contact with the CLC administration there and make sure things are running smoothly as best as possible. We plan on our building our team by finding school leaders. And our tutors can choose a school to go into, which would then become their responsibility.
How do you plan on integrating your program into schools that have been largely disenfranchised?
Layla: One of the main ways we plan on integrating our program into these [low income] schools is by letting the parents know that this is a free resource available to them. The parents are typically not as involved as they should, so stressing that we have a free tutoring resource is important. In a lot of schools we see students who are effected negatively my external factors like home life that can limit them academically. We want to give everyone as many opportunities as possible.
One of the main ways we plan on integrating our program into these [low income] schools is by letting the parents know that this is a free resource available to them. tweet
How do you plan on targeting students who need help?
Dalton: There are two main ways. In the after school programs the students can approach us themselves, but our CLCs have said they would provide us with names of students who might need attention. Another way is applying for a specific tutor where you get one-on-one time, which is open on our website. We realize that for high school kids its usually up to the student to pursue tutoring, but for middle and elementary school students, the parents play a large role, so we want to get a Facebook page to let parents in the community know that we’re a thing. So parents can go to our website, sign them up, and drop them off at the library. And what parent wouldn’t want their kid getting a better education?
Layla: Especially one that’s free and safe. We’d have parental approval and sign-off sheets that would ensure the students are safe in addition to getting the education they deserve.
The unfortunate culture of supporting those who naturally excel and leaving behind those who need more help to succeed has lead to the destruction of many academic careers both here in the United States and around the world. Aston seeks to foster the potential that all students have, and see all students, regardless of means, prosper.
If you want to support their cause or just learn more about what they do, check out Aston’s website: https://astontutors.org/.