Luke Clifton, Esha Puri and Pranav Ramesh stand in front of South Salem High School. The three rising seniors set up the free tutoring program, Connect Oregon Students, to assist K-12 students with distance learning. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

South Salem High School seniors Esha Puri, Luke Clifton and Pranav Ramesh are used to a demanding schedule of advanced classes and after-school clubs.

When school abruptly shifted online in the spring, the trio found they were finishing most of their weekly schoolwork in a day or two. They started talking about how they could help others and decided to start an online tutoring and peer support program for fellow Salem-Keizer students.

“We just thought it would be a good idea or opportunity to take advantage of this free time and create something productive,” Puri said.

In the final weeks of last school year, they connected about 75 students, most in elementary and middle school, with 15 high-school tutors to help them improve reading or understand math homework.

Now, they’re taking the effort statewide through a nonprofit organization they recently created called Connect Oregon Students.

“We thought that it’s such a good opportunity to help the community in any way we can because it’s such a stressful time for everybody,” Clifton said.

Any Oregon student in kindergarten through 12th grade can register on the group’s website, whether they need help with Spanish homework or just want a peer to talk to.

All volunteers are fellow high school students, and the three founders verify their enrollment and seek out peer references for new tutors.

South Salem High School Principal Lara Tiffin has offered some advice and support as the group seeks to expand across Oregon. She’s hopeful their work can fill some gaps for students who struggle as many districts prepare to begin classes online.

“Tutoring can be really expensive. It also can sometimes be hard for students to connect to adult tutors, so by providing a free tutoring service I think they’ve made the academic help more accessible to everyone,” she said.

She said she’s eager to see the program grow in the fall.

“These students are incredibly motivated and compassionate,” Tiffin said.

Puri, Clifton and Ramesh have been friends since they attended Blanchet Catholic School for middle school. At South, all three participate in DECA, a business education program, where they’ve built websites and written proposals for business ideas.

They used that experience to scale the program up, with Ramesh leading screening efforts for tutors, Puri working to promote the site and Clifton leading contact with students. All three helped build the website.

“We all brought our own individual skills to the table,” Ramesh said.

Puri’s mother, who’s a teacher, helped the group develop strategies for tutoring younger students with reading.

Clifton said he hopes the service can help younger students feel less isolated.

“High schoolers … we all have phones and we all have a way to connect with each other even though school’s not actually happening,” he said. For elementary school kids, remote school is

“kind of an immediate cut off from their social lives. We’re hoping Connect Oregon Students can be maybe a middleman,” he said.

Clifton said they’ve had about 40 students sign up so far in August, and he expects demand to increase as school starts up again. Interested students can apply for a tutor or to volunteer at https://www.connectoregonstudents.org/.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.