NEW PORT RICHEY — Maria Swanson had a problem.
River Ridge High School, where she became principal in 2009, had lackluster results on the FCAT writing exam, Florida Writes, and too many students seemed not to care.
The test didn't count toward graduation. They didn't get a grade for it. So why bother?
Swanson decided to combat the blase attitude with a full frontal assault: writing across the curriculum, in every class, with regular assessments to see whether the teens were improving.
"The first thing I told my leadership team … was that they need to be writing constantly," Swanson said. "Don't accept crummy writing. … To blow it off is a foolish thing to do, considering how competitive college entry is."
With Florida Writes just days away, she drove the message home with a three-day writing workshop for 10th-graders. On Friday, every River Ridge student participated in an essay-writing project in which they spent 15 minutes per class period working on the same prompt, handing in the finished product at the end of the day.
She stressed that the school isn't teaching to the test. It's just emphasizing a skill that every student needs, whether college-bound or not.
"They need to be able to write well, no matter what their job is," Swanson said.
About 150 sophomores crammed into the River Ridge media center on Wednesday to practice writing.
Surrounded by paper and pencils, they sat at tables in groups of five or six, listening to a parade of teachers offer hints and tips on how to turn a decent essay into a better one.
English teacher Mike Maynard talked them through using Maslow's hierarchy of needs as an organizing tool, focusing first on the physiological before moving up the pyramid to social and esteem issues. In writing paragraphs, he continued, use eight to 10 sentences filled with details.
"Support is the No. 1 thing that moves an essay from a 4 to a 5 or a 6" on the scorecard, Maynard said. "So each paragraph must include examples."
After a round of lecturing, the teachers gave the students time to practice. Some chatted and did little, saying they were "bored." Others "threw the writing gauntlet down," challenging one another to come up with progressively more creative sentences.
Joey Spissak, Sarah Niesen, Cuyler Lutz and Daniel Bentley traded ideas for the best way to begin responding to the prompt, "Mary and her best friend had a big fight."
"We want to start off with why they had a fight," Joey began.
"Do we have to start off with why?" Sarah asked. "We should save that for the end."
"We should start off with what they were mad about," Cuyler suggested.
"We should start off with dialogue," Daniel said, grabbing a pencil. He wrote: "'I can't believe you did that!'"
And off they went.
The group said the activities were a valuable reminder of the importance of writing well.
"We can use these skills on the FCAT, and get our school grade up," Joey said.
Nick DeCanio, who attended Monday's session, found it helpful to hear ideas from someone other than his English teacher.
"It's just a different point of view," he said.
The event might have been a bit hectic and perhaps a bit too big at times, he observed.
"But stuff got taught," Nick said. "Some people don't care. But if people want to get into a good college like UF, the writing does matter."
Honors English teacher Mimi Glover hopes that message gets through — and beyond the FCAT formula. Too often, she said, students don't focus on their writing, whether for the FCAT or their classes.
The idea of taking a day to stress the importance of writing tells them this is something they need to do well, Glover said.
Leslie Fischer, teaching high school for the first time, agreed that the lessons reinforced what she and others push in the classroom.
"I feel like they found success today," Fischer said of her students. "Hopefully, it will give them the confidence Tuesday to go in and know what they are going to do."
Swanson has high expectations that the sophomores will step up and deliver on the FCAT writing test, as their mid-year assessments have shown steady progress. For next year, the school will be adding creative writing courses to further cement the importance of good writing into the curriculum.
On the testing front, Swanson plans to turn her attention to getting juniors serious about the FCAT science test, which also doesn't count toward graduation.
"That's our next battle," she said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.