Missoula's literacy army is seeking a few good wordsmiths.

Every year, dozens of volunteers are deployed into Missoula's schools, where hundreds of students get one-on-one coaching to improve their writing.

The Writing Coaches of Missoula program really began 15 years ago at Hellgate High School, but is now a critical part of English education across the Missoula County Public Schools district, said Diane Benjamin, the program coordinator.

"(The coaches) see literacy as being in somewhat of a crisis, and I know that from a lot of different avenues," said Benjamin, who oversees the program and its numerous volunteers. "So they see what they're doing as fundamental."

Benjamin is seeking even more volunteers who believe that as well. This year, Writing Coaches of Missoula has expanded so much that the current list of qualified coaches is woefully inadequate.

The program needs at least 40 more volunteers to meet the demand in English courses across the district, said Benjamin. And its expansion is due in large part to MCPS' endorsement and the efforts of Superintendent Alex Apostle.

"Dr. Apostle really understood what we do, and he understood the value of having community people come in and work with kids," said Benjamin. "I think he wanted more community involvement in the schools in general, and I think he also understands the importance of writing."

Apostle said he recognized the value of the program soon after he was hired two years ago, and has helped it expand from Hellgate to all high schools and middle schools across the district. MCPS has even budgeted around $10,000 for the program - about half of its annual expenses. The superintendent has made it one of the highlights of both the district's Graduation Matters and 21st Century Learning initiatives.

The district, said Apostle, will continue to fund the program, and may even increase MCPS' commitment to its budget.

"The ability to write clearly and express your thoughts is a critical part of the educational process," said Apostle. "This way, we're hitting it from all directions."


Seena Demmons, a former English teacher at Hellgate, is MCPS' secondary reading specialist and works directly with volunteers and teachers to arrange mentoring sessions.

The program is invaluable to students and teachers, she said. It complements the work that English teachers do, and gives students of all writing abilities individualized coaching on critical writing skills.

English teachers simply don't have the time or resources to meet individually with every one of their students, she said.

"I think most importantly, the students have an opportunity to work with an adult mentor in a one-on-one conferencing situation without the threat of a grade or any kind of negative teacher-student roles," she said. "The adult who is involved is passionate about writing, and they share that."

Last year, the program conducted 1,351 such one-on-one sessions, and that number will grow this year.

Volunteers are first put through a training program, four of which are now scheduled beginning Sept. 21 on the University of Montana campus. The coaches tend to be college-educated professionals who are dedicated to teaching literacy and who know the foundations of good persuasive writing - content, voice, fluency, the logic of an argument, evidence for theses and other factors.

It is not, said Benjamin, simple remedial English and basic grammar.

"We try to emphasize ideas," she said. "And critical thinking. We challenge their ideas. We don't impose our viewpoints, but we make sure that whatever their viewpoint is, it is argued persuasively."

The volunteers cut across the range of professions, from retired teachers to UM law professors to journalists. Several Missoulian reporters and editors have been or are currently involved in the program.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.


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