By the time he reached high school, Mike Tanious, 16, had seen his share of lousy public schools. He saw cheaters go unpunished. He heard a rich kid brag about paying off teachers to get out of schoolwork. And he never heard a word about college prep, GPA, test scores, or anything else that might have helped him plan a future for himself.
It was not until he transferred to Mount Olive High School in Mount Olive, New Jersey, in 2013, that he saw a different kind of school, one where teachers cared enough to help and where students grew up knowing the possibilities open to them.
Mount Olive inspired Tanious to create Bend the Cycle, a website dedicated to helping other poor kids who aren’t being helped—and in fact may be hindered—by the schools they attend.
In the works for about five months, Bend the Cycle went live online on March 27. It includes the basics—a description of what the site aims to do and become, an About the Author tab and a FAQ tab. But the core feature of the website is a 50-page free online guidebook, uploaded on March 31, that lays out what a kid living in poverty may not know but should. Generally, the website comprises the sort of advice and encouragement Tanious wishes someone had sent him when he was younger: He addresses such topics as a high dropout rate, a high teen pregnancy rate, and an overall sense of hopelessness. The book has 11 chapters including the introduction. Throughout the text, Tanious directs readers to additional outside sources that can help them succeed.
For example, in his chapter on testing he writes, “The level of courses you’re able to take may depend on how well you do on tests like the PARCC or the FCAT. Don’t like it? Do you think it is unfair? You’re poor for crying aloud [sic]! You should realize how unfair life is by now. Study for whatever standardized test your school issues. The best way to do this is taking the practice test, and then if you find subjects you’re rusty on, go to websites such as Khan Academy and review them.”
In his chapter on sex education, he addresses popular misunderstandings like doubling up on condoms for extra protection.
“Don’t use two condoms to be extra safe,” he writes, “this is a common misconception and often leads to condoms breaking due to friction.”
Tanious originally wanted to name the project Break the Cycle—but that name was taken.
“You can’t really break the cycle anyway, there is always going to be poverty,” he said. “But you can manipulate it, you can always bend it in your favor.”
Born in Egypt, Tanious moved to the United States with his mom on Sept. 8, 2001 when he was just 2 years old. They jumped from one impoverished community to another until about three years ago, when they moved to Mount Olive.
Mount Olive was different. Mount Olive opened doors for Tanious. And although he and his mom remain poor, they receive better welfare and he attends Mount Olive High School where, among other things, he finally learned the relevance of GPA.
“I didn’t really realize how bad it was until I got here—there are people here who take their education for granted,” Tanious said. “This education is like heaven for me, everything is just so nice. They guide you to your future.”
Now, in addition to school, he works 30 hours a week at Dunkin Donuts, takes a class at the County College of Morris, and plans to have his associate’s degree by the time he graduates high school. And he plans to spend an additional eight to nine hours a week from here on out working on Bend the Cycle, which he finances out of his own pocket.
“It’s basically my tip jar cash,” he said, “so instead of saving it or spending it on personal luxuries, I’m spending it on the website.”
After writing about half a page per day for one month, Tanious spent his spring break compiling the pages of the book, creating the website and YouTube channel, and designing the logo.
Bend the Cycle is an ongoing project for Tanious and his friend Abdul Saeed, who handles the social media. But the website’s content comes almost entirely from Tanious’s background.
“On and off for months at a time, Mike would message me about this,” Saeed said. “He takes classes at our local community college with me and he’d keep me in the car for unnecessarily long amounts of time but it was pretty awesome to hear these things. He told me he wanted to do a book and start a project and I told him from day one I would more than happily have his back.”
Bend the Cycle is in the early stages—the site, which has been up for less than a month now, is visually loud with a bright blue background and accents of fuchsia and black, but the content is honest. Tanious is aware of its flaws and is open to suggestions.
He writes, “I used Microsoft’s Word spell check to correct grammar, so you can imagine the grammar of this book isn’t the best. If it becomes hard to read, email me and I’ll look for better revisions to make.”
Tanious has also recruited two Mount Olive High English teachers, Danielle Kulawiak and Susan Steinhardt, to help him not only with editing but also with the project as a whole.
“To have a kid who is so engaged and passionate about education and about providing an equality of education and wanting to help kids who are in situations that are unfortunate compared to his current situation is incredible,” Kulawiak said. “He came to us to do some proofreading, to edit it and polish it, and he seems really aware of wanting to get it to the best place possible before it goes any further.”
Tanious is making strides daily—he just established a board of directors including Saeed, Kulawiak, Steinhardt, and himself. He assigned goals for each member depending on their role—he says goals will continue to be assigned either bi-weekly or monthly. Saeed’s goals are social media-related: Obtain 100 Facebook likes, 50 Twitter followers and 25 YouTube subscribers by April 22. Both Kulawiak and Steinhardt have been assigned to read and revise the text and also look into the steps necessary to become a nonprofit.
Bend the Cycle will eventually serve as a platform for other teens to share their stories and advice. And Kulawiak suggested that Tanious reach out to college students to talk about college admissions and scholarship options. Steinhardt also suggested a mentor program. But Tanious can’t afford marketing, so he relies heavily on the power of online sharing and word of mouth to reach as many people as possible.
Bend the Cycle has the ability not only to reach students attending under-budgeted schools but also their teachers. Kulawiak has firsthand experience working at a low-income school in North Carolina.
“My kids had no idea to sign up to take the SATs or ACTs or that those were something they needed to take to even go to college,” she said. “There was just this sense of hopelessness, and the teachers are doing their best with what they’ve got.”
Steinhardt adds, “This is an option for us to help these teachers, they can go to the website [with their students]. There are a lot of kids in this school who have similar stories. Maybe this will inspire them to share their story.”