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At Kennedy High, awakening the next James Baldwin or Maya Angelou

on November 9, 2014

A Kennedy High school classroom decorated with writing guidelines, inspiring quotes, and grammar cues was abuzz with excitement as students and writing coach volunteers huddled over desks.

It was the first one-on-one writing conference for 10th grader, De’Andre Smith and his coach Ann Nutt. Smith said he wasn’t sure yet if this new experience was going to be good or bad, but he was looking forward to it. Smith, 26 other students and teaching volunteers got right to work during the opening day of WriterCoach Connection (WCC) at Kennedy.

WCC works one-on-one with students to help them think critically, express their ideas clearly, and write confidently. Offering eight to 14 individual writing conferences for 20 to 45 minutes, the program is built on personalized instruction.

WCC was started in 2001 by educator Dr. Mary Lee Cole, and launched at Berkeley high school with 35 community volunteers, six English teachers, and 180 students. Since then the program has served 25,000 students at 11 secondary schools in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany and the West Contra Costa Unified School district.

Through an ongoing partnership with the City of Richmond and a grant from the Cities of Service program (a coalition of nearly 200 cities working together to support volunteer services in challenging areas) WCC has now expanded to Kennedy High school, and is already in its third year at Richmond High.

“I’ve seen how powerful the interactions between the adults and students can be,” said Kennedy High school Assistant Principal, Dr. Allison Huie. “It’s a chance for kids to have a one-on-one conversation with a grown up who’s not necessarily a teacher, who cares about them and who cares about their academics, and that’s a powerful combination.”

Kennedy writing sessions take place on Fridays and will be monthly until then end of the year and bi-monthly the rest of the school year. Part of the training is to help students prepare for the California High School Exit Exams and the Preliminary SAT.

For four years Kennedy teacher and Eagle Foundation scholarship coordinator, Michael Peritz, has been reading letters of recommendations about prospective scholarship recipients from Richmond and El Cerrito High school who have benefited from WCC.

Working with Huie, Peritz was able to get WCC into two 10th grade English classes at Kennedy at the start of the school year.

Program wide assessments attest to the dramatic increase in Richmond High school’s 10th grade Engineering and Law Academy classes where coaches were placed.

“We want Kennedy to get the same good treatment that other people are getting,” Peritz said. “And WriterCoach Connection is good treatment, it really is.”

Living by the WCC saying: “meet the students where they are” the coaches train by role-playing to learn how to react to students who are highly motived or not motivated at all.

Second year coach Doug Johnson volunteered at Richmond before moving over to Kennedy this year. During his sessions he talks for 10-15 minutes, lets the student talk for 20 minutes, then gives feedback and repeats.

Richmond Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator June Pangelinan says she attends various events to find writer coaches like Johnson.

“I find that bringing people into the schools, into the Richmond schools, is such a gift,” Pangelinan said, “because they’re going to see just how talented and motivated these students are. To be able to bring the public into the schools lets people see the brilliance that’s happening there so that we can bring down the stereotypes that the media sometimes put out.”

Smith and Nutt looked hopeful as WriterCoach Connection’s first day at Kennedy came to a close. Though it’s too early to know the result of WriterCoach Connection’s presence in Kennedy, both coaches and students seem inspired by the possibilities.


  1. Robert Menzimer on November 10, 2014 at 8:20 am

    We’re just delighted to bring our writing support to Kennedy at last, even as we begin our third year at Richmond High across town and our 15th year overall serving students and teachers in East Bay schools.

    We’re especially grateful to City of Richmond Chief Service Officer Rochelle Monk, City Manager Bill Lindsay, and outgoing Mayor Gayle McLaughlin for their highly collaborative and effective partnership with us in both attracting Cities of Service funding for our WriterCoach Connection program in Richmond and for the city’s generous contribution of funding from its own resources.

    One slight correction: we’re serving a total of more than 2,000 students this year at eleven schools in four East Bay districts, but the total number of students we’ve served in our fifteen-year history is not 2,500 but actually more than 25,000. With more to come!

    Robert Menzimer
    Executive Director
    Community Alliance for Learning

  2. Kathleen Hallam on November 10, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    As the person who puts students and coaches together at Kennedy High, I saw a lot of nervous new volunteers, and from experience, I know students were nervous, too. Then, pairs of students and coaches sat down together in our newly decorated room, and anxieties melted. Conversation was thunderous and, encouraged by their coaches, students recorded their ideas in their unique voices.

    I am very impressed with the Richmond community spirit these volunteers represent. If you are interested in volunteering as a writer coach in Richmond or elsewhere in the East Bay, go to

    Kathleen Hallam
    Coordinator of WriterCoachConnection
    Kennedy High, Richmond
    King Middle School, Berkeley

  3. June Pangelinan on November 13, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    It was amazing to be a part of this inaugural coaching session at Kennedy High School. The students and new coaches were initially feeling anxious, however, that quickly melted away after their introductions and getting to know you conversations. About mid-way through the coaching session you could hear a multitude of questions being posed, comments being shared and conversations about the assignment; and then you saw pairs of students and coaches starting to relax and build their relationships. The students at Kennedy High are driven and the coaches are generous. The room was full of life as you saw the connections being made! It is humbling to recruit volunteers in this City and to get to know so many committed people in and around Richmond and the West County.

    June Pangelinan
    Richmond Volunteer Recruitment Coordinator
    WriterCoach Connection
    510-685-7054 (mobile)

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