Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect former occupation for Arvind Chava’s mother, and mistakenly said that the family had received public assistance for a while. Chava’s mother worked at an ice cream store, and the family never received public assistance. The story has been updated.
Arvind Chava believes that a good education is the pathway to a better life. And the 17-year-old high school senior is doing something about it — not only for himself, but also for hundreds of children in southeastern Fairfax County.
Two years ago, he started STEMWISE, a nonprofit organization that provides after-school tutoring and online classes to about 400 children, many of whom are from low-income families. Through the program, Arvind and about 50 of his classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology help children with math and science at 10 community centers.
Arvind learned about the importance of education after his family immigrated to the United States from India. Although his parents were well educated, his father, an electrical engineer, could find a job only at the front desk of a motel. His mother worked at an ice cream store.
Arvind’s father taught himself computer programming during his free time at the motel, and was eventually able to find a job as a Linux administrator.
Although he was only about 6 at the time, Arvind said he learned a lesson he would never forget. “I saw the transformative power of education,” he said.
The lesson was reinforced after ninth grade, when Arvind visited India and encountered some young people in rural areas who did not have access to the online educational resources that he had taken for granted. He realized it was thwarting their ability to lift themselves from poverty.
While in India, he gave a seminar on how to accessfree online educational resources, and helped raise money to provide laptops for several students.
“I think the root cause of [income inequality] is educational inequality . . . so I think we need to fix that,” Arvind said. “That’s why we teach predominantly in underprivileged areas, to underprivileged students, because those are the students that tend to go astray.”
During his sophomore year at Jefferson, Arvind started tutoring five children at MAS Community Center in Alexandria. As the number of students grew, he recruited a friend to help.
“Eleventh grade is where it really took off,” Arvind said. He enlisted more classmates, and they began tutoring children at Bailey’s Community Center, Sacramento Neighborhood Community Center and seven other sites.
Teleshia Taylor, coordinator of the Sacramento center, said she was impressed by Arvind’s professionalism. He came in with a written proposal, she said, and they drew up a memorandum of understanding.
“I’ve never run across such a young, talented group of individuals that know exactly what they want to do,” Taylor said. “The kids actually love them. They call them ‘the math geniuses.’ ”
Taylor said the after-school assistance is paying off for the children, most of whom are in grades three through six.
“The parents said they noticed a major difference in their attitudes toward learning,” she said. “Also, we keep track of their report cards. We can see a difference in certain skills.”
In addition to tutoring, STEMWISE volunteers have produced more than 100 educational videos that are posted on YouTube and serve as teaching tools.
Although no money changes hands — the community centers provide free space and the tutors are volunteers — Arvind incorporated STEMWISE as a nonprofit group this year to provide stability and credibility, he said.
Arvind is grooming his younger brother, Akhil, 11, to take over so STEMWISE can keep running when he goes to college next year.
Barnes is a freelance writer.