East Palo Alto high schoolers hone writing skills in campus program

L.A. Cicero Project WRITE

Mirra Schwartz, Rudy Rubio, Amanda Kibler and Yuriy Mikhalevskiy are Stanford students who work with Project WRITE.

L.A. Cicero Luis Flores

Eastside College Preparatory School sophomore Luis Flores worked on a poem with instructor Rudy Rubio, a Stanford senior majoring in public policy.

For José, an affable, curly-haired high-school senior in a bright yellow jacket, learning to express himself through writing is "like spice." It lends more flavor to life, he said.

"It's not only fun, it helps me view the world more critically," he added. "It makes the world a better place to live in."

He is one of several dozen students at East Palo Alto High School and Eastside College Preparatory School, many of whom are non-native English speakers, who gathered Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hume Writing Center to enter a world of academic aspiration.

It's a learning experience. The focus at Project WRITE (it stands for "Writing and Reading as Integral Tools for Education") is to encourage these students to write more and read more and to prepare for college—but not only that. According to the program's organizers, it helps them express themselves in compelling ways. It attempts to build writing skills they can use not only in the classroom but for the rest of their lives. Launched in 2003, the program offers workshops, guest speakers, campus sightseeing and occasional field trips to places such as Stanford's Cantor Center for Visual Arts and San Francisco's de Young Museum.

The program recently received a $100,000 donation from a Stanford alumnus and his wife that guarantees its continuance for some years to come.

This is José's third year in the program. "I came back because I wanted to learn more," he said, then described its benefits. "It helps minorities in our community. It helps students from our community put our work out there—to express how we feel about living."

Last Saturday, in the final session of this term's 10-week program, the students played on a large screen videos they had made. The task might appear lightweight to outsiders, according to Project WRITE acting faculty director Kristi Wilson, but in fact is an extension of an earlier session led by award-winner documentary filmmaker and Stanford alumnus Peter Jordan, who showed his short films Darfur Rising and The Champ to the group. The videos taught the teenagers about the process of writing scripts and developing storyboards, she said. Their videos, with their swatches of Spanish intermingled with English, will have a second life on the project's forthcoming website.

"All forms of writing contribute to what they'll do later," said Wilson, who also is assistant director of the Hume Writing Center and a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. "They definitely feel they're getting something."

Project WRITE began during an otherwise "boring" Thanksgiving break, recalled Taurean Brown, one of the two Stanford students who were co-presidents of Enigma Magazine: Stanford's Journal of Black Expression. She and Ajani Husbands, the other half of the team, were brainstorming "how to expand the scope of the magazine and branch out to the community."

They wrote a proposal but did not expect it to get much traction. Luck, however, was on their side: The proposal found its way into the hands of Andrea Lunsford, director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and Wendy Goldberg, a lecturer in the program who went on to serve as faculty director of Project WRITE. The two had been looking for a way to partner Stanford's Hume Writing Center with the community. The proposal also was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Stanford Community Day program.

It was all the encouragement Brown and Husbands needed. They quickly developed a curriculum and recruited faculty and graduate students to help with teaching (the renowned writer and Stanford English ProfessorTobias Wolff was among the guest speakers that first year). They recruited the East Palo Alto high school students and found ways to get the kids to campus in time for a January 2003 launch. The quick turnaround time from lightbulb moment to showtime—a mere two months—did not allow much time to "prepare and work out the kinks," Brown admits.

For the pilot program, 15 to 20 students, mostly sophomores from East Palo Alto High School, were paired with an Enigma staff member who served as a mentor throughout the term.

Since that fateful Thanksgiving weekend, the project has managed to get a reasonable amount of funding, although it has always operated on a shoestring relative to the program's high aspirations. During the second year, the Peninsula Community Foundation's Emerging Arts Fund contributed $6,000 to Project WRITE, and the program's mission expanded to include a literary magazine, linking it even more closely to the aims of Enigma. In its third year, the program was awarded a $30,000 grant from the President's Fund. With the $100,000 gift, however, the project is finally on a firmer footing. Brown said she hopes it will become a Stanford tradition.

"We're getting the money because the dynamics are working," Wilson said. Attendance is up, too: This year's class numbered about 30, though that figure fluctuated a little.

When asked what drew them to the Stanford program, some students admitted to goals that are basic: Homero, who emigrated from Mexico only three years ago, said he attended the sessions "because I need to practice on my English—to read and speak and write in English."

For Ruby, a high school junior, the program is a chance to "not be lazy on Saturday mornings" and instead boost her academic skills. "We just like the environment here," she said. Ruby is undecided between a future in journalism or medicine, but she's considering Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and "still thinking" about Stanford, too. And she is not the only one considering Stanford after spending her Saturday mornings on campus; in 2004, the program celebrated the first participant to be admitted to Stanford. (Most are college bound.)

For others, it is encouraging just to be around other kids with college hopes in an environment that does not always foster such hope.

But most participants repeatedly emphasized self-expression as the motive. Part of the appeal is that it is the first class in which they have been allowed to write what they think and feel, and not only what's required by a class curriculum.

Amanda Kibler, a researcher in the School of Education working with the project, said that a "huge part" of the program's attraction is "writing activities that are open-ended." For example, in "free write" sessions, students may be asked to write about a phrase of music that is played, or the thoughts that are evoked by a single word, such as "family."

In high school, Kibler said, "writing assumes that they start at a high level."

"This gives them a chance to start where they're at. It gives them confidence. They're starting from a place of 'I can' rather than a deficit, 'I can't do this.'" It helps that the course addresses their interests: This term, for example, included a session on the graphic novel.

"It has far exceeded what we initially intended," Brown said. "We've been very, very fortunate. I hope to see it expand even more."

To that end, she is currently helping spread the idea to other campuses. After participating in Teach for America for two years, Brown is now studying for her law and public policy degrees at the University of Michigan. Her former colleague, Ajani Husbands, a Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow, is currently a foreign services officer working for the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea.

These kinds of mentoring influences pass on more than the ability to write—they pass on hope.

José's college plans are on hold until he gets financial packages from St. Mary's College of California and Notre Dame de Namur University. He plans to combine a program of theology, psychology and human rights. He wants to write books, he said.