From left: Brainiacs Courtney Bryand, Whitney Ball, Dominic Dorsa, and Nicole Ahr discuss mentoring strategies at Rosella Coffee. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Students meet up at Rosella Coffee. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Every year public school districts compete for millions of dollars in grants to improve student outcomes. Some, like the Texas Literacy Initiative (TLI) grant award more than $3 million per year to SAISD alone to work toward closing the literacy gap in under-resourced school districts. With this and other grants bringing iPads, curriculum, and additional staff into public schools, it’s worth our time to ask the question: what is a dollar well-spent in education?

It may be worth looking at the advantages sought by families who have many options to choose from. When relatively affluent parents consider all the resources available to help their students thrive, where do they see value?

Ask any educator or parent: there’s nothing like one-on-one attention. For students on the brink of academic collapse, one-on-one tutoring can save the day. For students cracking under the pressure of competition and the pressure to achieve, a devoted mentor can restore perspective and help them get the most out of their education.

brainiac logo

That’s the commitment driving the “Brainiacs,” a group of mentors and tutors providing in-home services for local students in elementary, middle, and high school.

“All kinds of kids can benefit from this,” said Courtney Bryand, a mentor with Brainiac, LLC.

Bryand is currently a stay-at-home mom, using her master’s degree and six years of teaching experience to do the kind of intensive, tailored instruction she always wanted to do.

“Working for Brainiac has pulled in all of the things I love about teaching without all the things I didn’t,” said Bryand.

Among the things she didn’t love were class sizes. She shares the frustration of many teachers who feel that with nearly 30 kids in a class it can be difficult for even the best teacher to meet the needs of the outlying overachievers and kids with less common learning styles.

The personalized, creative attention of a Brainiac does come with a price. These mentors start at $65/hour for private sessions. Group study and standardized test preparation sessions can be shared, bringing the cost down, but for many families, it’s still out of reach.

Studies showing the benefit of more individualized attention have propelled nonprofits like SA Reads, San Antonio Youth Literacy, City Year, Communities in Schools and Big Brothers Big Sisters do what they can to extend the benefit to students whose parents and schools have fewer resources.

Darryl Byrd helps Herff Elementary student, Diamond, sound out a new word ("pancakes"). Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Darryl Byrd helps Herff Elementary student, Diamond, sound out a new word (“pancakes”) during a San Antonio Youth Literacy session. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs volunteer “bigs” with at risk “littles” ages 6-18. They operate under the same mentality as the Brainiacs. The outcomes are different, but they are equally positive.

“Positive one-to-one mentoring relationships can have the greatest preventive impact on the life of a young adult. In a national study we saw that when middle and high school students were paired with a Big Brother or Big Sister they were 52% less likely to skip a day of school, 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs and one third less likely to hit someone,” said Denise Barkhurst, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

When asked what it would take to scale the program across an entire district, Christina Martinez Big Brothers Big Sisters vice president for external communication  answered frankly.

“If we had the funding to hire another recruiter we could go into the community and recruit, screen, train, and process up to 1,000 volunteers.  It’s not that we can’t necessarily find the volunteers it’s a matter of capacity and funding on our end,” said Martinez.

While the Brainiacs are working with a more affluent group of students on the whole, they still find that emotional and social support come with the territory.

Lara Kilgore. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Lara Kilgore. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Lara Kilgore, president and CEO of Brainiac, feels that the “mentor” designation is a better description of what the independent contractors actually do.

“I tell the mentors, ‘you’re half therapist,’” said Kilgore.

In the relatively affluent communities where Brainiac works, students are often under immense social and academic pressure. Often a mentor will show up to a scheduled math or English tutoring session, only to find themselves talking through issues of self-esteem, comparison, and normal teenage angst.

“There’s a lot of drama happening outside the school work,” said Whitney Ball, who is studying psychology at Trinity University.

For struggling students, the Brainiacs will often identify underlying social and emotional issues getting in the way of their focus. Because so many of them have teaching experience, they can also call attention to learning differences that have gone unaddressed.

“It has made me appreciate that there are a lot of kids who have barriers to success and they get overlooked because of where they come from,” said Dominic Dorsa, a Trinity University alum who is working with Brainiac until he starts graduate school at the University of Texas.

It’s no surprise that some parents come to Brainiac looking to help their kids gain a competitive edge. But for most, Brainiac steps in when parents have exhausted their ability to help their kids.

Parent involvement is critical factor in student success, but even the most involved parents struggle to reach their teens as they assert their independence.

Kilgore emphasizes the mentor’s role in the family support system. They are not working for the students, being paid to do homework assignment that kids don’t want to do. The mentors are usually just a couple of life stages ahead of their students, and they can speak to issues that teens often keep off-limits to parents. They have the credibility of being young, but they are also wholly on board with the family’s mission, so they can offer the kind of guidance that parents long to give.

“All of the parents we have love their children and are committed to their success,” said Bryand.

It’s actually that relentless commitment that launched Brainiac 11 years ago, when a determined parent zeroed in on Omar Akhil to help her elementary age daughter who was slipping through the cracks in her public school. Akhil resisted for a long time, having left tutoring behind him as he pursued his career. But there’s no match for a mother seeking the good of her kids. She persisted until he agreed.

Within four years, Akhil’s services were in such demand that his stomach couldn’t take any more food-based payments. He formed Brainiac, LLC, recruited some tutors from local universities, and made a business out of it.

That’s when I met Akhil. I was working as a nanny, desperately in need of supplemental income. Brainiac was a perfect fit, and it allowed me to practice my mentorship skills with older kids.

Brainiac founder Omar Akhil
Brainiac founder and owner Omar Akhil. Courtesy photo.

In 2013 Akhil handed the reigns to Kilgore, so that he could focus his energies elsewhere. He remains on as owner, and is still involved with the families who started it all.

Since Kilgore applied her significant energies to expanding the company’s reach, Brainiac’s growth is only limited by the number of mentors they can find. The team that started as mostly college students has grown to include graduate students, professionals, and retirees.

Like Bryand, other professionals in the group enjoy the freedom to think outside the box in highly tailored sessions.

Nicole Ahr’s website, The Love Letter Library, celebrates encouragement and connection, values that carry through into her mentorship relationships. She uses her social media savvy and six years of teaching experience to inspire particularly disengaged students. When she realized that one student’s poor writing skills largely had to do with uninspiring essay prompts, she created a new set of prompts based on popular Instagram users they both followed.

If one-on-one help is as effective as experts claim, then it should be a priority for all students. To provide one on one mentoring for every student in San Antonio would take a monumental effort, no doubt enlisting companies like Brainiac and nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters. 

Parents with all the resources in the world are choosing one-on-one attention as the difference-maker for their kids. That should tell the public something about where to focus our efforts and our funding as we seek to close the achievement gap.

*Featured/top image: (From left) Brainiacs Courtney Bryand, Whitney Ball, Dominic Dorsa, and Nicole Ahr discuss mentoring strategies at Rosella Coffee. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.