Juan Ramirez feverishly erases the sentence he just wrote down, wiping away the evidence from the edge of his desk with the back of his hand.
“Teacher said we could start with a question or with quotes,” he says. “That’s the thing, I don’t know how to start.”
Ramirez glances up expectantly at the man sitting next to him in the two-seater desk.
“What’s the one thing that grabs you out of this whole story?” Paul Morris asks the 17-year-old junior.
Pulling the hood of his black pullover over part of his head, Ramirez turns back down to the papers on the desk and points to the middle of a paragraph and begins to read.
“I could have been somebody you know,” he reads, following every word with his pencil.
“She’s telling her daughter not to drop out,” Ramirez surmises.
Morris counters, “Let’s try to make this a question.”
Ramirez thinks for a minute before he writes, “Would you like to be someone in life?”
“Would you keep on reading it if I started like that?” Ramirez asks.
“I probably would,” Morris says.
For 20 minutes they work on Ramirez’s introduction paragraph, the assignment on the books during Wednesday’s WriterCoach Connection coaching session. Ramirez and Morris make up one of more than a dozen coach and student teams, clustered together in a portable near the edge of the Richmond High School campus.
Around the room, students’ hands are flying across their desks, while the coaches — a hodgepodge of women and men in various states of age— gently prompt and offer encouragement.
Morris, who is a member of the San Pablo City Council, is one of 78 writer coaches working with five classes of English Language Development, or ELD, students at Richmond High School.
Founded 12 years ago, WriterCoach Connection began in Berkeley High School with 35 community volunteers. Today the program has more than 500 coaches and reaches more than 2,000 students at 12 schools in four districts, said Executive Director Robert Menzimer.
In September, the program made its way to Richmond High at the request of Superintendent Bruce Harter.
“He got a hold of me and said I want this program right away, can you start next month? — this was December of last year,” Menzimer said.
The program typically takes to about a year to organize at a new site, but Menzimer said he was able to streamline the process — recruiting volunteers, training them and finding a site coordinator whose job is to act a the liaison between the teachers and coaches on site — in half the time so the program could being this fall.
“One of the reasons this program is so effective is that it’s not a pullout program, not a remedial program,” he says. “Every kid in the class has a writer coach all year long — there’s no stigma attached.”
Menzimer says the appeal of the WriterCoach Connection , that one-on-one support, makes it a hit with teachers and parents and the results the program achieves — higher test scores and a higher rate of assignment turn in — are just part of the larger picture that developing strong writing skills can open up to students.
“One of the best things we do is develop confidence in these kids,” he says.
Kelli Schultz teaches three periods of ELD 4 at Richmond High and is one of two teachers whose students are piloting Richmond High’s WriterCoach Connection program.
A Teach for America teacher, Schultz was hired right before school began this fall, but she says she immediately began hearing great things about the program from fellow faculty in the English department.
She says one of the challenges facing English teachers, especially those teaching ELD students, is that all of the students are at different levels of English learning.
“I can’t sit down with all 120 of my kids — classes of 42— as much as I would want,” she says. “It’s so nice to have writer coaches sit down one-on-one.”
There are four levels of ELD students and ELD 4 students are the highest level of English learners she says.
“You wouldn’t even know they weren’t native English speakers if you met them on the street,” Schultz says.
Oftentimes the students can speak English very well, but struggle with different aspects of writing such as grammar or syntax.
For Ramirez, spelling is what gets him.
“It’s the only thing keeping me back,” he says.
In order to be reclassified, ELD students must test out through writing assessments administered throughout the year.
Karen Larson, who is the site coordinator at Richmond High School, says reclassification is the goal because in addition to taking their regular grade-level English class, ELD students lose an elective to take an additional English class.
“The kids get frustrated that they don’t know why they’re in this extra English class,” Schultz says. “I try to tap into the fact that they speak another language very well.”
Before every coaching session, Larson says she asks the teachers what’s on the lesson plan for the week and distributes instructions to the coaches a few days in advance.
Right before they begin, Larson leads the coaches outside of the coaching room — to review the assignment before they retrieve the students.
Menzimer says volunteers who become writer coaches often tell him this is best volunteer experience they’ve ever had.
“And I think that’s because they know exactly what to do when they walk in,” he says. “The bonds that the coaches develop with the students is just the key to everything.”
It’s quite a trek to Schultz’s classroom, through a maze of hallways and past the cafeteria, but the coaches have been asked to use that time walking to and from the classroom with their students as a review session about what they’ve recently learned in class.
For Morris and Ramirez the walk back gets sidetracked by a more personal anecdote.
Ramirez recently went to a local animal shelter with his girlfriend and he’s thinking about going back to volunteer when he can.
Morris listens intently, interjecting with a bit about supporting the shelter in San Pablo when it came before the City Council.
And although they’ve only known each other for a few weeks, it feels like a friendship is beginning to blossom.
“We can really say what we want,” Ramirez tells me outside his classroom before going back inside. “For students who want to do well and graduate this program is great.”