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Writing program teaches city kids, but faces uncertain future

By dptemp

Section: Features

January 25, 2008

Every Wednesday afternoon at Snowden International School, in a school library no larger than an MBTA train car, I sit and wait for students to come and ask me to help them with their writing. Snowden lies where the posh shops of Newbury St. meet Dartmouth St.’s as cars race down from the John Hancock and Prudential buildings. Every day teenagers will fan out from its doors into a world of diversions. They get pizza or coffee, shop or just kick it with their friends in front of the gleaming glass-and-steel tower overlooking Copley Square.

Yet almost every day that I staff the writing center, more kids than I can handle come in with school papers, letters, college essays and more. They come to ask for help in their papers and sometimes, in their lives. Some need to have the difference between “there” and “their” and “they’re” explained to them, some speak more Spanish or Portuguese or Vietnamese than they do English, and some see the center as an escape from a home life that is often stressful and borderline insane.

Errol, a soft-spoken Cape Verdean junior, wrote in an essay “You might call me paranoid, always stressing my hood.” A student named Luis wrote a brief summary of his neighborhood: “Shots ring out. Two get hit and one drops.”

That’s one side of it, says Paul Tritter, the current writing center co-ordinator at Snowden.

But “there’s more than that stereotype…that inner city kid, struggling,” Tritter said. Hundreds of stories could be told at the school, and each one is different. The students come from all over the city of Boston. Snowden International is not an exam school like Boston Latin.

Tritter, himself a former teacher at the school, said that Snowden was the “most selected school” in the lottery that the Boston Public School System administers every year. He attributed its popularity and its rate of graduates entering college – around 80% – to its small size, safe location, good leadership and, most importantly, the quality of the staff.

Snowden certainly isn’t the typical Boston Public School. Housed in a grand, turn-of-the-century redbrick building in the center of Boston’s most expensive shopping district, the former Copley Square High School does not suffer directly from the violence that often wracks Boston’s poor communities. Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to see students with pins, shirts and hats bearing smiling, photos of a classmate or friend surrounded by vivid, graffiti-inspired designs…and the letters ‘R.I.P.’ next to the date violence claimed another Boston high-schooler.

The center that I work at is funded and run by a charitable organization called the Calderwood Writing Initiative (CWI), a program run out of that venerable institution, the Boston Athenaeum. A branch of the Calderwood Charitable Foundation founded by the late Stanford Calderwood (a former WGBH president who convinced Mobil to fund the famous PBS program Mobil Masterpiece Theatre) funds numerous programs. According to Jenny Desai, the Assistant Director of the operation, these include “a studio at the McDowell Artists Colony,” “a chair of Islamic studies at Boston College,” and numerous other artistic and literary endeavours.

The Snowden writing center actually began its life four years ago, said Steve Gordon, one of the Co-Directors of the Boston Writing Project, as a teachers’ workshop which tried to get more involved in their students writing – teaching the teachers, as it were. Two years later, the peer tutoring program began, bringing Harvard undergraduates to do personalized, one-on-one sessions with the high-schoolers.

“They look up to college students,” explained Tritter. The program “demystifies who college students are. They prefer working with tutors to teachers, because any personal attention is magic.”

After the tutoring program established itself, some concerns arose over the exclusive recruitment from Harvard, said Desai, because it’s easier for the students to relate to people who look more like them. But “we never had an issue with a ‘Snotley Q. Snidesworth’ who can’t relate to these kids,” she added, laughing.

Now, she said, the tutoring program recruits from Tufts, Northeastern, UMass, Emerson and of course, Brandeis. This is only my first year, but the diversity is certainly borne out – in the first week, I met tutors born in both Angola and Malawi. There’s no doubt that it is important for peer tutors to relate to the pupils, who are mostly African-American and Hispanic.

So we try to teach the kids how to write, how to spell, how to organize their thoughts and use grammar they may have never learned. We bring them to the library and go over their essays in detail, float through classrooms helping them over their shoulder and even field emails at 10:00, asking for edits and advice. I’ve looked over everything from anime-inspired ghost stories to college essays about losing a grandmother who herself took the place of a mother. One girl took a two-page short autobiographical assignment and turned it into thirteen single-spaced pages detailing her entire life story.

There are moments that are immensely rewarding and moments that are heartbreakingly frustrating. Luis Barbosa, a UMass student who hails from Angola, told me that a sophomore named Mike Pujols pulled him aside on the sidewalk one day. “Luis,” he asked, “if I wanted you to be my mentor, how much would I have to pay you?”

Barbosa said he was puzzled. “You don’t have to pay me anything, but I’ll mentor you if you want me to.” Now, almost every time I see him in the creaking, drafty halls, Pujols asks me if the center will be open that afternoon and if we will be staffing it. When we are, he’s sure to be there, bringing essays from his classes and staying until the last minute we are open.

Then there are others, like the student I met in an art class whom I’ll call “Dave.” Clearly smart and clever, he wrote better than most of his classmates when forced to. But he possessed an uncanny knack for slipping in and out of trouble. His teacher told me she had avoided disciplining him because he said that he was in counseling for his mother’s death. She tried to avoid upsetting him until she called his home and found his mother alive and well, although the woman barely spoke any English.

This is just one of scores of challenges every one of Snowden’s teachers must face. Those I have met are, without exception, dedicated and extraordinarily hard-working individuals. Nevertheless, they face exploding class sizes, undisciplined pupils and a system which, I heard repeatedly, would rather bump failing students up to the next grade then take the time and money to force them to repeat the years they failed. They struggle with the single year that they are given to force a little education into kids who are often their own worst enemies.

I entered one class based on American History but focusing on note taking taught by a teacher named John Gardner. Twenty-five or thirty students were crammed into a classroom even smaller than my room in the library. Some slept on their desks, oversized hoodies over their eyes. Others toyed with PSP’s or T-Mobile Sidekick phones under their desks. When he spoke to introduce me, Garner’s voice boomed and the kids sat to attention. That attention quickly gave way to apathy and distraction.

“How many of you,” I asked, “take notes when Mr. Garner lectures?” The response was deafening in its silence and inaction – not a single hand or voice raised. They stared blankly at me, as if I had asked them how often they went to Mars or what their favorite cricket team was.

“A lot of you are failing this semester,” said Garner. Groans were heard around the room. There was “no excuse,” he continued. The material for every test was drawn from the lectures. Yet not a single student took notes (or would admit to taking notes, anyways) on the tests they were failing.

The writing center is one of a few places where kids can get that personal, “magic” one-on-one attention. But its future is in jeopardy as well. Although there are interlocking charities and grants involved, Gordon said that an “investor grant” currently funds the writing center.

The goal for the school is to get Boston Public Schools to fund the program and eventually spread it throughout the system. Unfortunately, the BPS system is already strapped for cash. If no one steps in to continue funding, the 2007-2008 year may be the “last or next-to-last one,” said Gordon.

However, the program continues to improve its work in the face of this uncertainty. Caroline Huang, a tutor from MIT, said that “Last year, when teachers would ask which students needed help from the tutors, the students were definitely more reluctant to work with us; on Monday, eight students from the same tenth-grade English class asked for a tutorial.”

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