National Writing Project

Palo Alto Students Award Grant to the Bay Area Writing Project

By: Art Peterson
Date: May 4, 2010

Summary: This is the story of how the Bay Area Writing Project submitted itself to arduous examination by students at a local charter school and, as a result, received a cash award to support scholarships for its young writers camps.


Eastside students present a check made out to the Bay Area Writing Project.

It was a different kind of request than Adela Arriaga, director of the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP), usually received. Jen Johnson, a teacher at the Eastside College Preparatory School, wanted to know if Arriaga would visit the middle school to talk with students about the work of the Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP).

East Palo Alto is a good 40-minute drive from BAWP's headquarters in Berkeley, so the trip to the school and back would take Arriaga a big hunk of the day.

"But I had once been a middle school teacher," she said. "And I had also once worked in a charter school. So I guess I had a soft spot."

Eastside, she was to find out, was a special place. In the 1990s all the schools in the low-income community of East Palo Alto were shut down and students bused to affluent school districts nearby. The results were not good: 65 percent of these students dropped out of school.

Then in 1996, two Stanford students decided to put a school back in East Palo Alto. They opened the Eastside College Preparatory School with nine ninth-graders meeting around a picnic table in a park.

Since then, Eastside has grown to 255 students in grades six through twelve. The school is geared toward the admission of every Eastside graduate to a four-year college or university. To date, the school has met this goal. Every Eastside graduate has gone on to a four-year college.

Students Evaluate Writing Project

A few days after Arriaga accepted the invitation she received an email with a dozen questions the students wanted answered. The queries weren't about writing, though—they were all business.

The most important thing I learned was how to give back to the community.

What's your budget? What percentage of your budget goes to direct services? How much to administration? What's the history of your organization? What use do you make of volunteers? And on and on.

"I had to really do my homework for the meeting," said Arriaga.

That businesslike approach continued when Arriaga arrived at Eastside. Instead of presenting to a classroom of middle-schoolers, she found herself talking with four seventh-graders, who asked her a series of thorough, methodical questions.

"It was less a conversation than an interview. They probed questions they had asked me to answer, and they took a lot of notes. It seemed they already knew quite a bit about our project."

Arriaga's curiosity was piqued to the degree that when she was invited to return to Eastside several weeks later for the students to "present their findings," she cut her vacation to the Grand Canyon short.

Surprise Grant

It was not, however, just an event; it was an awards celebration. Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation, Eastside seventh- and eighth-graders had summoned representatives from seven Bay Area education-related nonprofits to award them checks to help them do their work.

They printed out a 4x3 poster board ceremonial check made out to the Bay Area Writing Project in the amount of $875.00, and the "For" line read, "For all your hard work helping Bay Area writers and teachers."

"We'll be using the money to provide scholarships to our Young Writers Camps," said Arriaga. "We have eight camps around the Bay Area this year."

As for the student donors, there were plenty of benefits for them as well. Because the students had to agree not only on which organizations should get the money, but also on how much each group should be awarded, they had to think about their budget in grown-up ways.

"The most important thing I learned was how to give back to the community and how to manage money wisely, which a lot of teenagers do not do," said Negasi Hart, a 13-year-old seventh-grader.

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