This story comes to us from NBC Latino.
On a typical weekday afternoon, dozens of children gather together on low couches and tables to read and write. With books and pencils in hand, these children in urban Los Angeles aren’t part of a formal classroom. They are students – ranging from ages 6 to 18 – who take part in the free after-school tutoring and writing skills programs at 826LA.
826LA is a non-profit learning center which emphasizes creative and expository writing skills with two locations in the neighborhoods of Venice and Echo Park in California. The center worked with over 7,500 students in Los Angeles during the 2010-2011 school year and provided 274 days of after-school homework help to an average of 70 students every day. More than 90 percent of the children who attend the centers’ daily tutoring programs, in-school educational events, field trips and evening/weekend workshops are Latino. The majority, if not all the children who regularly attend the program, attend public school and come from homes with parents who work long hours throughout the day. Many of the children who walk over to 826LA after school qualify for free or reduced lunches and are the children of newly-arrived immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.
Regardless of their family dynamic, homes or grades, there is one characteristic that these children have in common: they lack access to resources which can help support their road towards academic success. As executive director Joel Arquillos sees it, the art and skill of writing is a tool through which kids can navigate the public school system and find their voice.
“Writing, the act of stopping and thinking through something and being able to put those ideas into paper has a calming effect and it is an opportunity to sculpt the mind to think and understand things clearly,” said Arquillos, a former teacher who was part of 826 Valencia in San Francisco before relocating south to in 2008 to work as the executive director of the non-profits’ LA branches. “For many of our kids, taking the time to focus on writing helps them in ways they might not have a chance to do in other activities. It’s an art form that helps them understand their families, emotions and life.”
The center’s first priority is to help provide one on one after-school tutoring across all subjects and to get the day’s homework assignments completed. After that, the fun begins as the children participate in writing workshops with the ultimate goal of drafting, polishing and crafting a story in their own words that will ultimately be published in a nationally distributed anthology of work. 826 LA publishes one book every year, with introductions penned by the likes of healthy food pioneer Alice Waters and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Aside from working on the stories for publication in the annual Young Authors’ Book Project, the students also create chapter books, publish magazines and even print their own local newspapers using the center’s in-house printing press. Yes, that’s right: 826LA not only teaches writing across all genres with the help of 12 staff and hefty roster of registered volunteers, but also has its very own binding machine. This emphasis on publishing, says Arquillos, provides a project-based learning model that allows kids to work together in the creation of a final product that can feel product and that’s uniquely their own.
Ruth Flores, the mother of 8-year-old twins who attend the center, says that her children are not only budding authors, but are now excelling in school after thanks to the smiling tutors who have welcome her daughters day after day over the past year.
“You’d never believe how excited they were to make a book with their name on it,” said Flores, who said her twins’ grades have shot up noticeably in reading comprehension.
“It’s good for me too especially because they’re in the 3rd grade and it’s hard for me to help them since I don’t always understand words,” explained the 50-year-old stay-at-home mom. Flores moved from Guatemala at age 20 and her husband is from Mexico. She said that her discomfort with English had often made her feel embarrassed and unable to help her children with their homework.
Flores now credits the center’s parent publishing programs as a way she’s been able to become more comfortable with the English language.
“I’ve written about my past, how proud I am of my girls and what is important to me. I‘m not a perfect writer, but now I’m able to write a story like I’ve never done before,” said Flores.
“We were always busy at home doing this and that, and never took the time to take a pencil and paper to practice English and write about what’s important. It’s something that makes me think and feel good.”
826LA is in its 6th year of programming and after a busy fall filled with personal statement writing workshops, the kids who first attended the center as middle schoolers are now beginning to receive college acceptance letters. Many of the students want to pursue careers in writing.
“Kids naturally grow up, but to see them grow up as writers and students is a great thing,” remarked Arquillos.
“To have children writing and telling powerful stories that otherwise wouldn’t be shared is incredible – and ultimately, rewarding both for the volunteers and the students who ultimately become stronger communicators.”
Nina Terrero is a reporter at NBC Latino.
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