USM writing project makes positive impact in rural schools

USM writing project makes positive impact in rural schools

This is a news release from the University of Southern Mississippi

For the past three years, the National Writing Project affiliate site at The University of Southern Mississippi has invested in teachers and young adults throughout South Mississippi by implementing the College-Ready Writers Program that was developed through a $300,000 national "Investing in Innovation" grant.

For today's young people, learning to read and write for a variety of purposes is a key component for college, career and civic life. Mississippi has adopted new standards that include expectations for extensive writing at each grade level, and teachers are expected to incorporate more writing into their instruction.

To support teachers in helping students meet these new writing demands, the National Writing Project designed the College-Ready Writers Program with teacher-leaders from across the country. The goal was to assure more teachers had the ability to teach college and career-ready reading and writing – with a specific emphasis on writing arguments based on nonfiction texts, an important skill every young adult needs.

"As a result of this program, our students are reading and writing more than ever," said Mize Attendance Center Principal Chuck Jones.

The South Mississippi Writing Project (SMWP) at Southern Miss is one of 12 sites across the country hand-selected to be directly involved in the College-Ready Writers Program, designed to help rural school districts with high poverty rates improve student writing while increasing graduation rates and college attendance. SMWP provided professional development for secondary teachers in the Smith County School District and the West Jasper Consolidated School District.

Other participating sites supported more than 20 school districts with locations in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee. A two-year random assignment evaluation from SRI International, an independent research firm, found that the College-Ready Writers Program had a positive, statistically significant impact on student writing.

"This program is successful because of the focused, intensive professional development that includes workshops and many hours of SMWP teacher consultants working side-by-side with teachers in classrooms to improve student reading and writing," SMWP director Robin Atwood said.

From 2012-2015, SMWP teacher consultants worked with 7th-10th grade English teachers working with students struggling with test scores, particularly in English and language arts. In the rural districts randomly assigned to use the College-Ready Writers Program, teachers received 45 hours for two consecutive years of professional development in teaching students how to read informational texts and to craft effective arguments based on those texts.

Janet Bartran, a teacher at Mize Attendance Center, noticed increased literacy engagement from her inclusion students. "As an inclusion teacher, I have seen how the College-Ready Writers Program has improved the learning of students with disabilities.  The program lends itself well to differentiated instruction," Bartran stated.

Raleigh High School teacher Monica Boykin says the program was the most powerful professional development she has received in her career. "I began my participation in the College-Ready Writers Program with an open mind and a desire to see my students excel as readers and writers," Boykin said. "Being a part of the National Writing Project community has provided me with encouragement and support, as well as superb professional development.

"I have learned how to incorporate reading, writing, language and civic discussions into every classroom task and to bring the cohesion to English Language Arts that equips young people with the tools necessary to communicate well for a lifetime. They are hitting milestones in their skills which will transcend the classroom."

Connie Townsend, a teacher at Mize Attendance Center, says she has grown more in the past two years of her career than in the past 20 because of the South Mississippi Writing Project and the College-Ready Writers Program.

"Like my colleagues, I feel that I now have access to a community of like-minded educators who see the value in teaching our students to read with deeper understanding through writing," Townsend said. "I get satisfaction seeing them engaged in reading, writing, and thinking. I know without a shadow of a doubt that had it not been for the College-Ready Writers Program and the South Mississippi Writing Project that I would not have had these opportunities."

The National Writing Project study nationwide was the largest and most rigorous of its kind and included college-ready writers programs in 10 states with 400 teachers and 25,000 students involved. In late 2015, as the College-Ready Writers Program three-year grant came to a conclusion, the non-profit research group SRI International collected and reported findings concerning the effects of the program. The result of the study showed that the program had a positive impact on both teachers' instructional practice and student writing.

Key Findings: The College-Ready Writers Program evaluation is one of the largest and most rigorous studies about teacher professional development to find evidence of impact:

An overwhelming number of teachers (76% across 22 districts) consistently participated in at least 45 hours of professional development. This significantly impacted:
? *the instruction students received; and,
? *the proficiency of students on complex writing tasks such as connecting evidence to an argument.

College-Ready Writers Program students outperformed students in control districts on four attributes of argument writing – content, structure, stance and conventions.

"The South Mississippi Writing Project has a longstanding commitment to creating, strengthening and supporting a strong teacher-led infrastructure across south Mississippi through professional development that leverages the expertise of teachers so students can succeed in even our most challenging school districts," said Atwood. "We look forward to working with area school districts to replicate and scale up this important work."

To learn more about the South Mississippi Writing Project, visit