Hundreds of high school students from Minnetonka and Edina are tutoring elementary school pupils — not in the suburbs, but in Minneapolis.

This year more than 500 Minnetonka and Edina High School students have enrolled in the program run by Backpack Tutoring, a nonprofit that aims to help schools close the achievement gap and fight poverty.

“The greatest need is in Minneapolis,” said Bob Davis, the program’s chief executive volunteer. “Minneapolis is leading the achievement gap.”

Backpack Tutoring was started by a Minnetonka student in 1997 for an Eagle Scout project. Davis and his wife, Diana, are now the driving force and have worked to return the program to its student-led roots.

The program runs for 20 weeks from October through March. Minnetonka and Edina School districts cover transportation costs. Tutors clock in 15,000 hours per year, Diana said. The tutors are not paid for their work with the program. But the benefits are ample, she said. The work inspires many to write about their experience in their college application essays while others go on to become teachers.

“This gives them a leadership and volunteer opportunity and exposes them to new and different cultures and communities, with the opportunity to learn and grow in their awareness to issues beyond their own neighborhoods,” Diana said.

The tutors work with kids whose reading or math levels are typically one or sometimes two grades behind their peers. They go to Folwell four days a week after school and two days during regular school hours at Jefferson. Teachers at the schools supervise tutors and provide teaching materials specific to each child.

In addition to tutoring, the students recruit fellow high schoolers for the program, coordinate logistical needs and even manage the programs.

Julia Luehr, a Minnetonka High School senior from Chanhassen, has spent her high school years tutoring and mentoring several Folwell students. Now she manages volunteers and is responsible for cataloging attendance, but she still makes sure she tutors. The hands-on experience for more than an hour a day, one day a week, for 20 weeks has defined her career path. Luehr said she plans on becoming an engineer or a mathematician and help kids with disabilities.

“This program has taught me a viable lesson about work ethic,” Luehr said. “I love going because I believe every kid deserves a good education. You can see how kids are improving and also you make a personal connection with these young kids.”

Folwell teacher Deborah Martel, who supervises the after-school program, said the relationship the kids have built with the tutors has had a positive impact on their learning.

“They are excited,” Martel said. “They want to come, do the work with the tutors and they like it that they are young and energetic.”

In addition to tutoring, the nonprofit has an annual donation drive to collect winter clothing for children who come to school without the proper gear. For more information on the program, e-mail bdavis@backpacktutoring.org.