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WriteBoston opens students’ eyes

Sandra Larson | 4/18/2012, 7:21 a.m.
WriteBoston Executive 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

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.