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At 13, This Student Started a Free Math Tutor Program. Then He Delayed College to Expand Nationally

By Kate Stringer | May 7, 2017

Photo: Ankhor
Rarely does someone care so much about education that he will postpone his own to make sure younger students don’t fall behind. But as a high school junior, Tanmay Rao decided that was exactly what he was going to do — and no one was going to change his mind.
“I didn’t have to meet with him more than twice before I realized that he was passionate enough about this that if we didn’t find a way to make this work for him, that he was going to go off and do it anyway,” said David Laws, dean of academics at The Lawrenceville School, a private New Jersey high school that Rao attended.
“It” turned out to be Ankhor, an online math tutoring nonprofit that Rao developed and launched during his senior year of high school. In some ways, it was a culmination of five years of tutoring services Rao had run at his local library since he was 13. In other ways, it was just the beginning of his quest to expand education access to students who need it most.
Ankhor (the name is a play on words on “anchor,” combining “ankh,” a Hindi word for “numbers,” with “or,” from “tutor”) is a free online platform that connects elementary and middle school students with high school math tutors, through their schools. Districts sign up and receive an access code so that the Ankhor team can accurately match up schools and students in the same geographic area.
The program has already been used by hundreds of students in 23 schools in four states and Washington, D.C., and Rao hopes to expand to 50 schools by year’s end. The program will be also be spreading to schools in Chicago and Miami this fall.
“We’ve got a broader education ecosystem that needs help, and the underutilized resources are the students themselves,” said Rao, who is now 19. With Ankhor, “students are both the beneficiaries and the benefactors of that.”
Educators agree that there’s a need for peer-to-peer tutoring. Teachers have only so much time to spend with students, and parents don’t always understand the homework or have time to help. So sometimes, the most readily available experts are students who mastered the same subjects just a few years before.
Here’s how Ankhor works: A sixth-grader sits at the kitchen table after school and pulls out his math homework. He needs help, but instead of calling his parent over, he opens his laptop and schedules a time to talk with a tutor. Several miles away, a high school volunteer logs on to Ankhor and commits to a two-hour tutoring bloc. Ankhor connects the two, the student uploads his assignment, and they go over it using video chat and a virtual whiteboard.
“The person broke it down, I was able to see it, he gave me examples, drew shapes and equations on the board … I was able to understand it,” said Deja Lewis, a seventh-grader at Young Scholars Charter School in Philadelphia. About a dozen Young Scholars students log on to Ankhor during the school day to help teachers provide differentiated instruction in their classes. As some students don’t have computer access at home, this also gives them a way to seek extra help.
“Having someone check in with them provides some accountability so the kids feel invested,” said A.J. Ernst, the dean of students at Young Scholars.
Even when parents are available to help their children, sometimes it’s just cooler to have an older student checking in.
“You know how [students] are for the parents — they won’t listen to us,” said Guergana Mihov, whose children attend the Lawrence Township Public Schools in New Jersey. “They will listen to somebody else better.”
Her son Steven, 13, and daughter Emily, 16, have participated in Rao’s tutoring program since 2011, when it consisted of evening help sessions at the local library. Now that Rao has brought his program online, Steven occasionally gets math help through Ankhor. Mihov has seen Emily transform under peer tutoring from a middle schooler who didn’t understand math to a high schooler who loves algebra.
There’s no screening for tutors, but Rao said the work makes it self-selecting, and parents and teachers say they trust that the tutors are upfront if they don’t know how to help. The tutors aren’t paid — that’s what keeps the program free. But they say the reward comes from helping students understand a subject many loathe and struggle with. It also fulfills volunteer requirements that some schools have.
Adam LaSpina, a 16-year-old at Perkiomen Valley High School in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, spends about four hours a week advertising the program to prospective tutors and learners and helping with account registration. “I know that math can be a difficult and intimidating subject for many students, and I have witnessed many people become frustrated and upset over math homework,” he told The 74. “I wanted to use my knowledge and experience in this subject to help those students and show them that math isn’t as difficult or scary as it may first appear.”
Rao said he felt lucky that his parents and teachers were so encouraging and supportive of his math learning when he was a student, and he wanted to give back. So he put off applying for college during his senior year and instead worked out a special schedule with Lawrenceville to take independent studies focused on creating a nonprofit, raising funds, and developing his business.
He already knew the need was there. During his sophomore year, he applied for a service learning grant through his school, which he used to survey 700 tri-state area schools on what teachers thought about an online peer tutoring program. The responses were overwhelmingly favorable, and Rao knew he had to expand his program beyond the four walls of the Mercer County Library.
There’ve been some challenges along the way, like technical glitches with the online tutoring tools and fundraising to maintain the site and pay web developers for the expansion.
But this kind of peer-supported learning is especially relevant now, said Liz Duffy, Ankhor board member and former head of school at Lawrenceville, who oversaw Rao’s independent studies. As education begins to focus on personalized learning and the changing role of students in owning their learning, Duffy sees Ankhor as the perfect place to explore that role. “It’s a good beta test or a good example of that kind of learning,” she said. “If you’re looking for successful models of new trends, this is almost like a paradigm.”
Rao, who graduated from high school in 2015, eventually applied to college and plans to study economics at the University of Chicago in the fall. But he also says he will stay involved with Ankhor and try to expand the program’s reach to Chicago.
After all, like a proper mathematician, Rao is obsessed with solving problems. It was only a few years ago that he sat next to a fifth-grader in the county library, poring over a homework assignment the student had done poorly on. The problems dealt with calculating the volume of a sphere, something Rao himself had struggled with in fifth grade. But Rao remembered and repeated, almost verbatim, the advice of his teacher at the time: a way to visualize the problem rather than memorize the equation. The next time Rao saw the student, the fifth-grader handed Rao a quiz he had just taken in class. The quiz was on volume. He’d gotten an A.


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