Inspiring Young People to Write

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At 826LA -- as is the case at all 826 National locations -- we love nothing more than witnessing a young person become enthralled with the written word. Both of our Los Angeles centers offer a weekly journalism class led by professionals in the field where students discuss, write, edit, and produce neighborhood newspapers. Our students at 826LA in Echo Park have created a paper they've titled Good Times, while our Venice locale publishes The Venice Wave. Recently, our local ABC station in Los Angeles featured our journalism class on their news show:

826LA has made both of its newspapers available online as a multimedia blog as well. Students are encouraged to create video, audio, and other new media content, just like popular online newspapers. And yes, our students are well aware of the declining readership of printed newspapers, but they are also passionate about reviving the form. They personally take copies of their paper to local cafes and book stores where folks from the community can pick up a free copy.

But what's most inspiring is when a student becomes impassioned by the power of writing. Here's a recent piece from The Venice Wave by one of our rising stars:

After hearing debate among students, teachers, and parents over Mark Twain becoming a charter school, The Venice Wave budding reporter Cesar Guajardo decided to explore the benefits and disadvantages of charter schools with President and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, Marco Petruzzi.

Cesar Guajardo: Why does Green Dot want to take over Mark Twain?

Marco Petruzzi: First of all, it is important to understand that Green Dot cannot "take over" a school unless one of two events happens: 1) the majority of the teachers agree to become part of Green Dot through a Charter Conversion process or 2) Green Dot applies, through a new process being designed currently by LAUSD, to run the school and is chosen to be the best operator for that school by an LAUSD panel. This last possibility has been made available just recently due to a vote made by the LAUSD Board in July 2009. It applies only to schools that have been failing to meet federal standards for many years in a row. Unfortunately, Mark Twain Middle School is one of them. Green Dot is a nonprofit with an ambitious mission: to transform public education in Los Angeles so that all students receive the education they deserve to be successful in college, leadership and life. We generally respond to the needs of the community. More than 1500 parents, mostly from parents of elementary-aged students in Venice, have requested better choices in secondary schools in Venice. Many parents in Venice avoid Mark Twain, as it is in the bottom 20 percent of middle schools in California, but would like to have better public school options in the neighborhood.

CG: How do you think Green Dot will benefit Mark Twain?
MP: We have a model that serves students, parents, and teachers better than the model currently being offered by LAUSD. As a public school, we receive similar per-pupil funding to what LAUSD does (actually about 10-15 percent less), but we make much better use of the money. Ninety-four cents of every dollar is spent and controlled at the school site instead of approximately 60 cents for every dollar at LAUSD. We also run a much more decentralized system, where the majority of the decisions that affect the students are made at the school site instead than by a central bureaucracy. And we are much more inclusive of parents in our school community than your typical LAUSD secondary school. We also believe that with increased autonomy there should be more accountability for everyone's benefit.

CG: Will Green Dot divide Mark Twain into different academies like Locke High School was?

MP: Possibly, but that would be a decision made with the community and the teachers. We believe that a small school model better serves the students, but we also want to preserve traditions that have worked in the past. For example: at Locke, while we divided a very large school into several academies, we maintained a common athletic program, common after-school programs and also a common mascot (the Locke Saints). Some elective classes are also shared. We are trying to bring to Locke students the best of both worlds: the personalization that comes from a small school model and the benefits of large programs. So far, it is going very well.

CG: Why do you think we should wear uniforms to school?

MP: There are many reasons. In many of our communities there are gang-related problems, and uniforms often eliminate associations to specific gangs. It provides for a more relaxed atmosphere on campus. But even in communities where gangs are less present, uniforms provide low-income families with an opportunity to spend less money in clothing as many kids in middle and high school feel they need to "keep up" on clothing. Uniforms are the great equalizer and keep kids focused on what matters: developing your skills rather than just your appearance.

CG: Are Green Dot teachers part of a teachers' union?

MP: Yes they are. They are part of AMU, Asociacion de Maestros Unidos, which is part of the California Teachers Association.

CG: Are Green Dot teachers paid as well as regular public school teachers?

MP: They actually make about 5 to 15 percent more and have smaller class sizes and better working conditions.

CG: Are students learning more at Green Dot schools than at regular public schools?

MP: If you look at the data in detail, they absolutely are learning more. But that doesn't mean we couldn't do better. We are certainly trying to provide our students with the best possible education, and you can only achieve that by being overly critical of yourself and trying to improve year after year.

CG: Are the test scores good at all Green Dot schools?

MP: We currently only serve high school students. While not all our schools are performing at the same level, they are all performing much better than the local high schools that our students would have attended. What the scores don't show is that we also have a much better retention. As you may know, a big issue at LAUSD is the tremendously and tragically high drop-out rate. The students that drop out are not counted in the scores. We retain the majority of our students. But our schools that have been around for four or more years are doing better than the ones opened only one or two years ago. We expect our newer schools to also provide great student outcomes in the next two to three years, once they've been around for at least four years.

At the core of 826LA's programming is a belief in the proven pedagogy of project-based learning. According to this teaching and learning practice, students learn best when they are in charge of their learning and when they see the results of their hard work in finished form. Thanks to the support of amazing volunteers, many of whom are professional writers, our students gain firsthand knowledge and real working experience with an array of writing genres. Our journalism workshops are particularly popular, even when the medium is undergoing a major makeover, because students feel ownership of their work. But most importantly, when a student, like Cesar above, takes the initiative to write about something he feels very passionate about (and yes, Cesar is pretty unique in his love of politics and in the case above, educational reform) it's wonderful to know he has a place to go where people who care deeply about the written word can help him develop his ability to express his ideas clearly and confidently.