Karen is the mom of two kids. Her son Caio was in second grade when Karen began working on the Alvarado Writers Workshop. Karen teaches English as a Second Language and runs a tutoring center at San Francisco State University.

The problem

Teachers at Alvarado Elementary School noticed a large achievement gap between the highest and lowest achieving students at Alvarado. They were concerned that some of their fourth and fifth grade students were not developing the reading and writing skills they would need to succeed in middle school.

Making a change

In the fall of 2004, the teachers approached Karen, who already served on the school’s Literacy Committee, about starting an after-school tutoring program. The project piqued her interest and Karen started planning, modeling the program after the tutoring center she runs at San Francisco State University.

The program was designed to integrate reading and writing skills into a motivating theme that was chosen after surveying the students about their interests. Karen knew that students’ writing is often limited by their previous experiences, so it was important to choose a focused theme and stick with it for a whole semester, giving students an opportunity to develop new knowledge and vocabulary. Students would work with an instructor in groups of four twice a week after school.

The neediest students were selected based on a combination of test scores, teacher recommendation and participation in one of Alvarado’s after-school programs. It was important to Karen that students attend the program regularly, and she believed involving kids who already participated in an after-school program would be a good way to keep attendance high. Student writing and reading is assessed at the beginning and end of each semester to monitor whether the program is working.

Karen and another parent did the bulk of the work to get the program up and running. They interviewed and hired the instructors, solicited student snacks from local supermarkets, planned the curriculum, wrote grants to get funding and then supervised the beginning of the program. Karen noted that there was a huge amount of organization involved and she frequently spent more than 10 hours a week working on the program.

Thanks to Karen’s efforts, the Alvarado Writers Workshop was up and running by the spring of 2005. Sixteen children worked with an instructor in groups of four that spring. Their theme was adventure. The kids all showed a small but noticeable improvement in their reading and writing skills over the course of the program. The following year even more students were able to participate, and the results have continued to be positive.

Getting other parents involved

Karen recruited one other parent (also a teacher at SF State) to help her in developing and implementing the Writers Workshop. Looking back, however, she thinks she should have done things a little differently. She would have formed a committee of teachers and parents where each member had a defined role to fill, instead of taking on most of the work herself. She noted that teachers do not have a lot of extra time to spend organizing projects like this, so a lot falls on parents. She said she ended up doing whatever no one else wanted to do, because she wanted to the program to be successful. This eventually became overwhelming, and she had to back off and get others to help. “Now when I get an email asking why there isn’t any snack yet for the month, I say, ‘Here’s how to contact your snack coordinator.'”

Working with the school

Although the original idea for the Writers Workshop came from a teacher, Karen said that many teachers were initially a little suspicious of a parent-led academic program. The program had the support of the principal and the school site council, however, and quickly won over the teachers. She noted that the teachers gave their support when they saw the program get going and they saw improvement in their students. Lots of teachers turned out for the end of semester performance where students read aloud a piece they’d written.

Major challenges

Aside from the sheer amount of work involved in getting the Writers Workshop up and running, the biggest challenge has been finding good instructors for the program. Although the school is able to pay a good hourly rate and provide paid prep time, finding the right people for the job has taken a lot of time, and there has been turnover each year. Karen said that qualified instructors are very important to the success of the program, so she and others at Alvarado have worked hard to write grants and get funding to pay an attractive salary. Still, it has been difficult to find an experienced instructor who is available every weekday afternoon, and the people who are available tend to be somewhat temporary.

How the school has benefited

About 48 students have now been through the Writers Workshop program. Their teachers have seen improvement in their reading and writing skills, both in class and on the assessments given through Writers Workshop. Karen notes that it isn’t possible to give these students everything they need to catch up in two hours a week, but she is pleased that the program is showing positive results.

Tips for other parents

Karen’s best advice for other parents is to think carefully about who will play which roles in a project from the very beginning. Assigning specific jobs to other people will help you avoid getting in over your head. She also encouraged parents to think about what they can do to help with literacy at their schools. “You don’t have to be really skilled to make a difference,” she said. As an example, she said that Alvarado is now working on a Read to Kids program where parents will spend time after school reading with kids who may not be read to at home.