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Berkeley writers help school’s achievement gap

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Monday June 11, 2001

Allison Johnson, chairperson for the Berkeley High School English Department, remembers the first day the writing coaches came to her class.  

Suddenly, there they were: This neatly dressed cluster of nurses, accountants, carpenters, screenwriters, and other professionals, waiting patiently outside her classroom, wanting nothing more than to teach her students how to write. 

For Johnson, it was a dream come true. But for many of the students, it was more like a nightmare. 

“At first, they did not want to go [with the writing coaches],” Johnson said. “They were scared. They didn’t know what to expect.” 

Until recently, most Berkeley High students had a better chance of being struck by lightning than having to sit one-on-one with an adult for a full class period. But that was before Berkeley resident Mary Lee Cole, an expert in designing educational programs, launched the Writers’ Room program this past March. 

Emulating a program a New Jersey school district has used for nearly 10 years to tackle the racial achievement gap, Cole trained more than 50 volunteer writing “coaches” to work one-on-one with Berkeley High students once a week. 

Since March, the coaches have worked with some 300 students at the school, most of them freshman. Whenever possible, the same coaches meet with the same students each week, working to build a relationship of trust and respect. 

At a school where the average freshman English class can include everything from students who struggle with sixth grade level reading assignments to students prepared to write an insightful and cogent essay on, say, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Cole said the Writers’ Room program provides a unique opportunity to customize the education experience according to the needs of individual students. 

“We are in the business of personalizing the educational experience,” she said. 

Berkeley High teachers work to personalize education as much as they can, but they frequently complain that, in classes that range for 20 to 35 students, there is only so much one teacher can do. Johnson said when it comes to something as vital as writing skills, which impact the students performance in virtually every class they will take at Berkeley High, the extra help teachers can offer often isn’t enough to overcome the deficits students have when they arrive at the school. 

“I can look over their draft quickly, but I don’t have time to spend a whole period on one kid’s draft,” Johnson said. 

“The English department feels this tremendous pressure [to bring student writing skills up to par],” Johnson added. “We know what we do affects them in all their classes.” 

For some students, the Writers’ Room could be the extra help that keeps them from falling completely through the cracks, according to Johnson and Cole.  

“A lot of kids come to Berkeley High and they just get completely lost,” Johnson said. 

And if freshman year isn’t enough of a shock for those students who arrive at the school unprepared, the transition from freshman to sophomore year holds yet another cruel awakening, according to Cole.  

Since average class sizes jump from 20 to 35 between the two years, students who had difficulty getting help they need as freshman are likely to give up altogether as sophomores, she said. 

“If the kids are at risk at all, if they don’t have really strong skills … they just fade out,” Cole said. 

By sitting down with students and helping them work through writing assignments detail by detail, the Writers’ Room coaches offer the kind of academic advice and moral support that keeps students from giving up, Cole said.  

Many students already have a good start on the work by the time they meet with the coaches. In these cases, the volunteers help them correct grammar and spelling errors, or perhaps encourage the student to explore some ideas that he or she might not have come to on their own.  

With other students, the tutors must start at ground zero, helping them to understand the assignment and trying to get them interested in the work. 

Heather Skibbins teaches in Berkeley High’s Rebound program, created this January to give double period English and Math to some 50 freshman who had failed these core classes the first semester.  

Skibbins said she has seen some students go from ignoring assignments altogether to turning in neatly typed essays, all through the intervention of a Writers’ Room coach.  

“Some kids who didn’t even do [an assignment], [who] hadn’t engaged, … the next day they came to school with like a three page paper,” Skibbins said. “They are like, ‘Oh, I have a 100 things to say about this now, because this person has just made me realize all that I know about this.’” 

Cole said getting students to truly engage in their school work is a big part of what the program is all about.  

Many students have become convinced that they will always be poor students and that their homework is simply too difficult for them to even attempt, Cole said. But Writers’ Room coaches, through a casual conversation around the topic students have been assigned to write about, make it clear to students that they really do have a lot to say, she said. They help them get those difficult first sentences down on paper, and then a few more sentences, until suddenly the students are saying things like, “‘What? I wrote all that?’”  

In some cases, all it takes to get a kid started is having an adult sitting across from them who is clearly interested in what they have to say, according to Writers’ Room coach Debbie Reynolds, the parent of a Berkeley High freshman. 

“Our schools are somewhat like factories,” Reynolds said. “It’s not an environment where people are interested in what you’re saying or what you’re doing.” 

The Writers’ Room, on the other hand, offers a, Reynolds said, “very safe, non-judgmental interaction.” 

“Your finding the things that they do right. Your giving them a chance to do something they feel good about,” she said. 

Writing Coach Virginia Jardim volunteers at Berkeley High when she’s not working as an English teacher at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Jardim said Writers’ Room gets students out of classrooms where teachers are often struggling just to maintain control of the class, let alone getting students to absorb their lessons, and places them in a calm environment where they are truly free to focus on learning. 

Furthermore, Jardim said, students in class with their friends are often at pains to maintain an image of coolness or aloofness. Once removed from their peers, they can give school work their best effort without fear of being labeled nerdy or slow, she said. 

By all accounts, the Writers’ Room is already impacting the achievement gap at Berkeley High. English teacher Katherine Palau has seen her students raise the achievement by an average of one letter grade after working with Writers’ Room coaches. And the program’s popularity is on the rise with both teachers and students. 

“I’d rather do this than waste my time going to a tutoring program,” said Berkeley High freshman Brad Kelly. “They’re usually packed anyway. This is better, because it’s more one on one.” 

Cole said more and more teachers are clamoring to become involved in the program. She plans to train more writing coaches over the summer, including UC Berkeley students and some Berkeley High seniors. By next year Cole hopes to have 200 coaches volunteering an estimated 9,000 hours – enough to make Writers’ Room coaches available to all of Berkeley High’s 900 freshman and several 10th and 11th grade classes. She’s planning a Writers’ Room pilot program for King and possibly Willard middle schools. 

In a year of budget cuts, finding program funding hasn’t been easy. Cole began the program with small grants from the Berkeley Public Education Foundation and the Berkeley High School Development Group. Since then she’s roped in small contributions from the Berkeley school district, The Berkeley Rotary Club and the Dreyer’s Foundation, among others. 

But Cole said what makes the program possible is the simple fact that being a volunteer writing coach has vast appeal in a community like Berkeley, where there is no shortage of talented writers eager to help improve the public school system. 

When it comes to reforming education in California, Cole said, “It’s not enough to have a great idea, you have to have a sensible idea that you can follow through on.” 

To volunteer to become a writing coach, contact Wendy Breuer at 524-0249 or To contribute funds in any amount to the Writers’ Room program, send checks or money orders to the Berkeley High School Development Group (designating the Writers’ Room Program), at P.O. Box 5453, Berkeley, CA 94705-0453.