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Teens at a Baltimore County magnet school saw a need adults couldn’t meet. So they stepped in to mentor others.

Five Baltimore County high schoolers have launched a mentorship program to chaperon younger students — separated from school counselors and peers by COVID-19 — as they navigate challenging educational hurdles.

The Eastern Technical High School student program — called the Domino Effect Initiative — began in January with the goal of hosting webinars that coach kids through seemingly opaque topics such as financial assistance, standardized testing and course selection. The program’s name refers to the founders’ goal of creating a “domino effect” in which students pass on their new knowledge and skills to friends.

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The project is unique in that it is entirely student-operated and unaffiliated with the public school system. The students behind the program said it was shaped by the pandemic era in which many Maryland children have spent months learning from home and missing out on face-to-face interactions with upperclassmen and school counselors.

Left to right: Amman Vahora, Tori Levush, Aziza Mattaka, Christian Thomas are students at Eastern Tech who started a mentorship program for students called the Domino Effect Initiative.
Left to right: Amman Vahora, Tori Levush, Aziza Mattaka, Christian Thomas are students at Eastern Tech who started a mentorship program for students called the Domino Effect Initiative. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

The idea blossomed from a 1:30 a.m. conversation in October between 17-year-olds Aziza Mattaka and Christian Thomas, both juniors at the magnet school in Essex. As a first-generation American, Aziza figured out from a young age how to independently navigate an academic world with which her parents were unfamiliar. And Christian, whose family didn’t have the money to spend on music lessons as a kid, discovered the joys of extracurricular activities in third grade when he joined a music club to play the recorder.

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The students soon wondered if others would benefit from hearing the lessons they had gleaned over the years. And those lessons might land better if they came from peers. After all, when Aziza wanted to take an extra U.S. history class last summer, she consulted her friends as she filled out the paperwork.

“Students trust students,” Aziza said. “When I am confused about what classes to take, I don’t ask my counselors. I might go to a teacher to find out how their class works. But, if anything, I go to my upperclassmen.”

Aziza and Christian were soon joined by senior Amman Vahora and juniors Anaya Osho and Tori Levush to create the peer-led mentorship program. One goal was to re-create the relationships between students that organically sprouted in school hallways, lunchrooms and other common spaces before public education moved online. And the students reasoned that some adults do not have personal experiences to draw from when it comes to navigating online programs and applications that the pandemic has made more commonplace in education.

The Domino Effect founders felt so strongly that the program should be student-led, they wrote it into their organization constitution. The leaders say they have steered students toward school counselors and other educators as needed.

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Research suggests that peer tutoring programs have positive effects on students’ academic performance and attitudes — and the benefits extend to children who served as the tutors.

The program’s webinars are gradually growing in popularity among Baltimore County students. About 10 more teens have joined the five founders to organize and run the program. And lately the group has noticed more students attending webinars from schools beyond their own. The webinars attract about 20 to 50 attendees, Aziza said.

Students appear to be finding the webinars through word-of-mouth and via social media sites like Instagram and TikTok. Organizers recently posted a poll to Instagram asking whether students were planning to take a standardized test. Those who responded yes were sent information about upcoming sessions.

Webinars often begin with an icebreaker to loosen up the students. One session on scholarship opportunities recently opened with the question, “If you were a condiment, what kind would you be?” Several kids chimed in to profess the merits of sour cream before the conversation pivoted to the topic of financial aid.

As the mentors listed the size of several university endowments, one student remarked, “That could buy a lot of sour cream.”

Some conversations that have developed during the webinars have enlightened the program organizers on educational inequity. The group was stunned to learn some of their peers were unaware of basic resources that the teens from Eastern Tech said they had taken for granted.

For example, Amman noticed during one webinar that students weren’t aware of financial aid options that would allow them to waive Advanced Placement test fees or to receive free or reduced-cost lunches. That unfamiliarity with available resources poses a huge hurdle for kids to succeed, Amman said.

“If you don’t know the program exists, you’re not going to go to your counselor and be like, ‘Hey, can you help me enroll in this?’” he said.

The teens would eventually like to form a nonprofit so that they can attract funding and possibly create scholarship opportunities. Just like the program’s name suggests, the students expect their peers in lower grades to continue the mentorship initiative long after they’ve graduated, though they’ll all remain involved.

As each webinar progresses, Amman likes to listen for his favorite oft-repeated comment from fellow students — “How come I never knew about this?”

“That’s what we’re here for,” he replies. “We told you.”

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