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South Side High School seniors launch free online tutoring site

Students at South Side High School in Rockville

Students at South Side High School in Rockville Centre were able to summon a free tutor thanks to an online service launched by four of their schoolmates in 2013. The group created, a portal to make peer-to-peer tutoring anonymous and more flexible. Credit: Tara Conry

When Michael Spelfogel receives a pop-up message on his cell phone, he knows one of his schoolmates needs help, and he’s ready to come to the rescue.

Whether they’re struggling with trigonometry, physics or French, students at South Side High School in Rockville Centre now have the ability to summon a tutor using a computer, smartphone or tablet.

In October, Spelfogel, 17, a senior, and three of his classmates -- Thomas Keady, 17, Matt Giovanniello, 17, and Yu-Kuan “Anthony” Lai, 17 -- developed and launched, a free online portal for peer-to-peer tutoring.

Spelfogel said the idea came to him after his National Honor Society adviser announced in late September that all members needed to complete 40 minutes of tutoring either before or during the school day. That posed a problem for Spelfogel and his friends.

“We all have very rigorous schedules, no ‘off’ periods,” he said.

The four seniors devised an alternative. By taking tutoring online, they realized they could offer both tutors and students in need of help more flexibility.

“The time when students really find out they don’t understand a topic is at night when they’re studying for a test that’s tomorrow,” Lai said. “That’s when you need the help the most.”

When students visit the site, which Spelfogel, Keady, Giovanniello and Lai created together from scratch, they can select from a list of 19 subjects and are asked to indicate the course’s level -- Regents or Advanced, for instance -- their teacher, and their question. They can also attach a file to show the material they’re struggling with.


Once the request is sent, a tutor will receive a notification on his or her phone and will then engage in a live chat with the person needing help. Both parties remain anonymous, which Spelfogel said, is another advantage.

“One of the biggest impediments to tutoring and success in high school is the embarrassment of having to ask a question in class,” he said. “This completely removes that element.”

Between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday, students can expect a response within a minute of sending their inquiry, while requests submitted outside those hours will be answered, but perhaps not as promptly, Keady said.

Since the site launched on Oct. 14, Spelfogel said they’ve fielded nearly 100 requests from students. On Monday night, Lai said, he was helping three students at once.

South Side Principal Carol Burris said she is helping advertise the service to her students.

“It provides that almost on-the-spot help,” she said.

The site currently has seven tutors, but Giovanniello said they are screening more candidates, including some for the weekends. They’re also looking to recruit juniors to run it once they graduate in the spring.

Spelfogel said, “Hopefully, it can continue to benefit South Side for years to come.”

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