Director Betty Southwick in the organization’s Roxbury office. On March
29, WriteBoston celebrated 10 years of helping Boston students improve
writing skills. (Sandra Larson photo)
Inside Boston’s English High School in late March, it’s a typical Tuesday at the writing center — a nonstop buzz of activity. Students and volunteer tutors come and go, calling out greetings or sitting down at tables strewn with papers and reference books to work through writing problems.
After checking in with writing center Coordinator Sage Marsters, tutors stay to work with walk-in students or fan out to help in classrooms.
Tutor Colleen Fullin, 25, a graduate student at Emerson College, sits at the large center table with a sophomore student, helping her develop an essay analyzing President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. Later on, a pair of tutors work with three classmates on an assignment to compare the tactics of abolitionist John Brown with other anti-slavery initiatives of his time.
The writing center is a program of WriteBoston, a citywide initiative launched in 2002 to improve writing skills in Boston’s public schools. WriteBoston has three main components: writing centers offer tutoring to students in and outside their classrooms; the writing coach program provides coaches to help teachers make their writing assignments more effective; and Teens in Print (TiP), a collaboration with the Boston Globe, brings students together from all over Boston to learn journalism and publish a teen-written newspaper.
Marsters, a youthful 40-year-old with an intense blue-eyed gaze, is a published writer and former teacher. She holds master’s degrees in both education and creative writing. Many of the 14 tutors she manages are graduate students; others are working or retired professionals.
“The tutors are not editors so much as writing mentors,” Marsters says. “Rather than saying this is right, this is wrong, and doing the ‘red pen’ thing, we are saying, ‘What stands out to you?’ ”
Not being judged and graded is a new thing for the students, she says, but they soon adapt.
“It’s really neat to watch,” she continues, her zeal for the work evident. “The first time, they’re saying, ‘You tell me. You’re the tutor.’ But after a few times they get used to it; it’s a way of respecting them as the learner, the writer. They do have things to say about their writing.”
Senior Aboubacar Konate drops by the writing center. He doesn’t need much help now, as graduation day approaches. But the writing center tutors gave him crucial guidance when he was working on college application essays last fall, he says.
Now the 20-year-old, who spoke no English when he arrived in the United States from Guinea in 2009, is receiving college acceptance letters. He’s considering Wentworth and University of New Hampshire (UNH), and plans to study business or engineering.
“That’s great! We need to talk,” Marsters says to Konate upon hearing about UNH. Not only did Marsters attend UNH, she tells him, but her father is a journalism professor there. She promises to introduce them.
English High School was one of 12 underperforming Boston schools designated in 2009 as “turnaround schools” targeted for intensive attention and resources to accelerate the pace of improvement. Since then, the school has instituted tougher writing standards. Its literacy focus has expanded across all subjects; it’s not unusual for WriteBoston tutors to help students writing for science or geometry classes as well as English or history.
Headmaster Sito Narcisse, who arrived from Pittsburgh to take the reins at English in 2009, said WriteBoston has had an “unbelievable impact” on the school in its time of transition.
“The teachers have been excited,” he said by telephone, “especially those who teach science and math. They didn’t used to think they would teach writing. So that’s been huge. And even with ELA (English Language Arts) teachers, it’s had a huge impact.”
Students, too, have noticeably come around, Narcisse said, even after initially “freaking out” over the new writing standards. “When they’ve been stuck, and have gone into the (writing center) to work with the tutors, students have loved it. Only some of them say it directly — but it’s helped all kids.”
Across town later that same Tuesday, TiP Coordinator Ric Kahn greets the first trickle of hungry and talkative young people arriving at the Boston Globe headquarters to work on the next issue of their newspaper.
Kahn, a former Globe and Boston Phoenix reporter, greets each teen with warmth and some sort of affectionate ribbing. Deadline is nearing, and he needs to remind them to get their stories in ASAP — but he mostly takes a low-key approach.
During the two hours the teens are gathered in this room, they do plenty of talking, checking Facebook and e-mail, eating (the Globe provides a big tray of sandwiches each week) and talking some more. Eventually, they ask questions about their stories-in-progress. All of that is okay with Kahn, who has been teaching crews of “TiP-sters” for the past 3 years.
“It’s not school,” Kahn said. “It’s relaxed. As long as they hand me a story, I don’t care when they do the work.”
He plays leader and guide more than editor.
“They have the passion; I teach them to do it in journalistic form and to be ethical about it,” he said. He enforces basic rules: Stories should quote three sources, by name; interviews are done face-to-face or by phone, not by e-mail or text message; fact-checking is a must. The TiP newsroom is open three afternoons a week; to be considered staff writers, the teens have to show up for two of those days.
Ralph Karnuah, 16, a Brighton High School sophomore from Dorchester, has published one story so far. He reported on how teens view “toughness” in today’s society.
“I was kind of happy — no, really happy,” he said. “My friends didn’t believe I had a published article. Then they said, ‘cool.’ And my father was impressed.”
Alicia Perez, a senior at John D. O’Bryant High School, aspires to be a political journalist. She has taken advantage of several programs WriteBoston offers, including the Caroline Knapp Journalism Intern Program and a partnership with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University. Perez, 18, was part of a reporting team that investigated local pharmacies’ misinformation about the “Plan B” contraceptive for TiP’s March/April issue.
Betty Southwick has been WriteBoston’s director since its inception. In her office in Roxbury’s Dudley Square in early April, she was still feeling the exhilaration of a March 29 gala commemorating WriteBoston’s 10th anniversary.
“Ten years is a big one,” she said. The program has served 23 schools, more than 250 teachers, and some 4,500 students. At one school WriteBoston aided, she said, the passing rate on the MCAS English portion rose in three years to 64 percent from 16 percent.
“We have a real model,” she continued. “So now what? Where do we go from here?”
Southwick, parent of two grown children who attended Boston public schools, exudes warmth and business-like competence. Her manner reflects her years as a teacher and guidance counselor, followed by several stints managing non-profit and for-profit businesses. In those latter roles, she was an expert at growing a venture from nothing to a thriving and sustainable operation, she said.
“You grow gradually, create a quality product, and then add to it,” she said.
Headmaster Narcisse recalls finding out about WriteBoston when he was new at English High.
“I was looking for what programs in this city work. I had just arrived in Boston, and someone at another school connected me with Betty Southwick. She and her team really ‘get’ urban schools — the type of work and the complexity of it.”
Things really seem to be looking up at English, and Narcisse is upbeat.
“We’re very confident that by the time our children leave English High School, they will be able to write essays at the college level,” he said. “We knew for a while that we had gaps we had to fill. WriteBoston has helped us accelerate that process. We are lucky to have this partnership.
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