Kenneth Nickel wants to add his two cents to the back-to-school conversation.

As chair of the R.E.A.A.D.Y. Foundation (Redefining Education Achieving Associate Degrees for Youth), he’s launching The Open-Door Mentor Program, a new initiative for helping local students, parents and teachers during the pandemic.

The program will connect displaced and retired teachers, or qualified educational instructors, with kids in grades 6-12 through who will be participating in online classes due to COVID-19. Following CDC guidelines, teachers will offer one-on-one guidance to supplement students’ online sessions, assisting them with their classwork and navigating their online courses in the safety of their own homes.

“I’ve always wanted to help students as much as I can,” Nickel says. “This program can be a win-win for everyone: students, parents and school districts.”

Applications for families and teachers are available online. All parties will be contacted by either Nickel or a foundation board member to address questions and concerns. Programs will be customized to meet the needs of each family.

Participating mentors, who must have all required state clearances, are not private tutors (there is no direct instruction and there are no lesson plans), but serve as a motiving force to help students stay focused. Parents can opt for sessions three to five days a week for a period of at least three hours a day.

The fee is $28 an hour, with cost per hour decreasing as the number of hours and days increases. Nickel is seeking ways, including private donations, to help cover costs for families that can’t afford to pay.

All parties must sign a waiver acknowledging COVID-19 risks.

Prior to each scheduled visit, mentors and the families must perform temperature checks and email the results to Nickel or a board member. Masks must be worn at all times.

“I’ve always wanted to help students as much as I can,” Nickel says. “This program can be a win-win for everyone: students, parents and school districts.”

Nickel, a former principal dancer and educator with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, has established performance art degree programs at La Roche College, California University of Pennsylvania and the Community College of Beaver County. He established the R.E.A.A.D.Y. Foundation to give performance arts students financial and developmental support as they reach for their dreams. He was moving forward with plans to open a charter school in Millvale when the pandemic hit.

The crisis changed his perspective and the foundation’s mission, which now includes all students.

Nickel hopes that through social media, news publications and word-of-mouth, he can generate buzz about The Open-Door Mentor Program and give people hope in uncertain times.

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.