Rays of Hope: Monroe City, Louisiana High School Senior’s National Writing Contest Win Is a Sign of a School District’s COVID-19 Comeback

After facing decades of academic, financial, and legal obstacles, the predominantly African American school system feels poised to realize its goal of even higher student achievement

Black History Month writing contest winner, Serenity Black (second from left); pictured with Monroe County Schools Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Serena White (left); Michelle Manuel, Ms. Black’s teacher at Wossman High School; and Jerry Mayhall, Monroe City Schools administration team member. (Source: Monroe City Schools.)

Monroe City, LA — Serenity Black, a senior at Wossman High School in Monroe, Louisiana, took first place in the high school division of The Writing Revolution’s national Black History Month writing contest.

The significance of Ms. Black’s personal achievement, the winning essay of more than 580 entries, has become a resonating symbol of progress within Wossman and the school’s district, Monroe City Schools (MCS), where they have experienced the common and longstanding national challenges of teacher shortages, racial achievement gaps, and the disruptions to learning that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The topic of Ms. Black’s written entry was Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, whose virtually immortal cancer cells have been patented and used — without Ms. Lack’s consent or compensation — by the medical research community for more than 60 years. Ms. Black’s entry not only demonstrates the 17-year-old’s deft handling of sentence construction, but the entry also reflects Ms. Black’s ability to expand her emotional awareness of Ms. Lack’s story — beyond what is considered by many to be a glaring, historical instance of medical exploitation — to include how Ms. Lacks demonstrated a resolve to face her cancer diagnosis and live her life to the fullest.

“Lacks wasn’t expecting to hear such horrific news the day she walked into the doctor’s office,” writes Ms. Black. “Even after being diagnosed with cancer, her light never went dim. Instead, Henrietta continued to have a positive outlook on life. Remaining strong and never losing faith is essential when battling tough trials,” Ms. Black wrote.

A National Honor Society inductee and student athlete who admits to being shy, Ms. Black described her contest win as “Overwhelming, but I think it is a start of something; something for the future.”

Michelle Manuel, Ms. Black’s current teacher and who has also taught the 12th grader through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, referenced how Ms. Black’s writing is a reflection of her work ethic, which remained consistent throughout the pandemic’s lockdown period.

“I never had a day when she did not give her 100%. I mean, always. [During remote classes], She was always on camera and always working,” said Ms. Manuel.

Ms. Black’s achievement is a symbol of hope for a northern Louisiana school district that has faced strong headwinds to academic progress. While MCS’s district performance score has increased by four points since 2015, the district has maintained a “C” rating, where “A” represents the highest score. A stricter formula for measuring performance was introduced in 2018. The metropolitan Monroe area has the nation’s greatest concentration of poor residents who live in high-poverty neighborhoods. Until 2018, MCS operated under the label — determined by a court in 1965 — of a segregated school system with cited instances of separate and unequal operating practices, apparently driven by race.

The district has responded to these obstacles by investing in educator recruitment and quality curricula for all students, inclusive of expressing ideas in writing.

MCS’s Director for Curriculum and Instruction, Serena White, calls Ms. Black’s contest win “an example of a culmination of a dream,” in reference to the district’s education investment. MCS has engaged The Writing Revolution (TWR) since 2017 to train teachers in the delivery of writing instruction. What started as a pilot to evaluate effectiveness, the collaboration has now expanded to include grades K-12 and virtually all subject areas. Ms Black’s winning entry is based on a specific TWR writing strategy.

The immediate result, in Ms. White’s view, is a systemwide and consistent approach to teaching students how to effectively express facts and other ideas through writing.

“[We decided to] build a system of progression in MCS that would really prepare our students to write, and write well, so that they could express and communicate their thoughts — because they have amazing thoughts,” Ms White adds.

“I am confident that MCS will have even more strong writers like Serenity in the future,” said Dr. Dina Zoleo, Co-Executive Director of The Writing Revolution. When MCS introduced the district to TWR, Serenity was in middle school. Imagine a future where every high school senior in MCS has received up to 11 years of quality writing instruction, starting in kindergarten.”

MCS’s post-COVID-19 plan centers on a consistent factor that has helped the district make vast performance improvements: supporting teachers.

“We have to invest in the people who are in front of our kids,” noted Ms. White.

“A computer program is not going to catch kids up from COVID … we know that as a district, the absolute most important thing is that our students have more time with high-quality instructors who care about them and who can help [students] overcome their gaps.”

MCS’s participation in programs sponsored by the nonprofit Educators Rising — via the University of Louisiana Monroe — not only serves as an extension of MCS’s investment in teachers, but the move also supports the district’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Educators Rising encourages local high school students to become educators. Justin Overacker, one of Ms. Black’s former teachers, praised the district leadership’s decision to recruit young teachers from the community who share similar backgrounds with the students they would teach.

Another post-COVID focus for MCS is mental health, a nationwide concern that has presented significant challenges to students and educators. Through assistance provided by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER), a funding source that has also been used to support some of MCS’s literacy programs, the district will establish a mental health clinic to serve constituent student populations. In addition, counseling sessions have been provided for teachers, when needed.

Mr. Overacker, mindful of the challenging two-year period that the education community has experienced — inclusive of the massive social inequalities that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted — says Ms. Black represents a “physical manifestation” of everyone’s struggle to overcome obstacles.

Ms. Manuel echoes the previous point: “The stress of teaching during a pandemic … and then having Serenity win this recognition, has been inspiring to me.”

She adds, “It’s been like … coming out of a storm and it’s [now] a beautiful day.”

MCS has seen other visible signs of its efforts bearing fruit: the district’s high school graduation rate increased from 64.4 percent in 2015 to nearly 90 percent in 2021.

Ms. Black intends to enroll in the University of Maryland this fall, and study biology. While she wishes to become a dentist, she has indicated that she will continue to hone her writing skills.

About The Writing Revolution

Founded by Dr. Judith C. Hochman and based in New York City, The Writing Revolution’s mission is to enable students, especially those from historically marginalized communities, to develop writing skills, as well as the ability to read and think critically, so they will have enhanced opportunities to succeed in school, in the workplace, and in life.

TWR trains and supports teachers and school leaders in implementing the Hochman Method, an explicit set of evidence-based strategies for teaching expository writing. The method builds from sentences to compositions and is embedded in curricula across all content areas and grade levels. The organization believes that improved writing skills support the improvement of overall academic performance, and will position students with stronger personal skill sets that can help to narrow the social inequality gap. TWR has positioned writing instruction as a solution to help address the students’ learning loss that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Published in 2017, the book, The Writing Revolution: A Guide To Advancing Thinking Through Writing In All Subjects and Grades, was co-written by Dr. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. A top-seller within the educator community, The Writing Revolution has been sold throughout all 50 U.S. states, 36 countries, and more than 1,000 colleges and universities.

Through courses, workshops, and webinars, TWR’s training footprint spans North America and 17 other countries.

While TWR’s book and courses are available for purchase by any educator, school, district, and community member, the organization focuses its partnership work on educational institutions that are located within historically marginalized neighborhoods.


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