By Anna Winer

For many high school students, writing anything over140 characters — not to mention actually spelling out all the words — can be drudgery. But basic writing skills are crucial to success in school and beyond. According to a 2010 Carnegie Corporation report, 40 percent of high school graduates lack the literacy skills employers seek. One-on-one help can be tremendously effective, but already-overtaxed teachers rarely have time to provide it.

The Writing Center at Grady High School (WC) seeks to bridge that gap and provide extra support for Grady students with any type of writing project for school, work, or pleasure. The WC, one of the few writing centers in a public school in Georgia, is now in its fifth year of operation. In the fall of 2008, the non-profit Grady High School Foundation funded the center’s opening to actively engage students with the reminder that writing skills are determining factor in careers and the backbone of clear and organized thinking. The center now also relies on funding from the Boys’ High School Alumni Association, the Harper Foundation, the Ray and Elizabeth Lee Foundation, and individual donations.

Every Monday through Thursday after school, all Grady students are welcome to drop in at the WC, which is located inside the school’s media center. They come for a variety of reasons: for guidance on a research paper topic, for help editing a college admission essay, or for feedback on a personal project such as a short story, poem, comic book or song lyric. (They’re on their own, however, for tweets.) Whatever the project, a staff of volunteers are there to help, led by part-time coordinator Riki Bolster, who taught journalism at Grady for 19 years and was faculty advisor for The Southerner, the school newspaper, and Grady News Network. “The act of writing is such a scary thing for many people,” says Bolster. “I want to demystify the writing process. We often begin just by talking and then help students dip into their creativity to become better writers and interested readers.”

WC volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. Seth Hagan, for example, a volunteer since 2010, is pursuing a literary studies degree at Georgia State and wants to teach high school English, a far cry from his earlier career as a New York tax attorney. As a student himself, Seth is sympathetic with the pain involved in “taking the knife out and doing surgery on a piece,” but by helping students understand the process of writing, through brainstorming, draft, and revisions, he hopes to challenge their “notion of writing as sitting down with a blank page and coming out with something brilliant.”

Husband and wife volunteers Robby and Krista Russell are parents of ninth grade twins at Grady and have been helping at the WC weekly since August. Robby, a freelance copywriter, and Krista, a young adult novelist, call the WC a “great resource for the students and a unique volunteer opportunity for a writer.” The WC is always looking for new volunteers; you can contact them through their website, gradywc.org.

In December, the WC sponsored a poetry workshop for teacher Deedee Abbott’s Literary Magazine class, in which Georgia poet Rupert Fike led the students through an exercise that, in under an hour, resulted in each student composing a working draft of a poem. In late January the WC hosted their annual playwriting workshop, taught by Megan Cramer, Grady alumna and associate artistic director of New York’s 52nd Street Project. The workshop began on a Friday evening, with Ms. Cramer using music to inspire the six student participants to create character sketches. By Saturday afternoon, each student had developed those sketches into a ten-minute, two-character play. The workshop was capped off when professional actors performed the plays on stage, to the delight of the new playwrights.

Senior Kelsey Hubbard, a repeat participant in the workshop (and herself a volunteer in the WC), beams, “To see my play come to life on stage by professional actors was incredible!” Such events not only enhance writing skills but also help create and strengthen the community of student writers at Grady. By the end of the weekend, the participants “were all like this,” Hubbard says, holding up two tightly crossed fingers.

Many Grady students have embraced the WC, which logged over 1,000 visits during the fall semester alone. But of all the student writing that Bolster and the WC volunteers see, perhaps none is more meaningful than notes from students, such as one that arrived from a senior after a workshop on writing college essays. The note, folded origami-style, read in part: “Because of your advice, I am more confident than ever about my future.”

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.