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It’s pure poetry: FSU outreach targets kids at-risk, raises scores and more

In 1991, at a Panama City shelter for runaways and other abused and abandoned teens, Florida State University associate professor of English Joann Gardner and graduate program alumnus Janet Heller held their first “Runaway with Words” writing workshop. These kids had a lot to say, and poetry helped them say it.

The poetic outreach to at-risk youths, now armed with its own textbook and staffed by FSU graduate students and undergraduate interns under Gardner’s direction, has empowered voices, improved skills and reduced recidivism at shelters, detention centers and alternative schools statewide in nearly a dozen cities and as far away as Utah, Oregon and California. Like many of its students, Runaway with Words has grown well beyond its Panhandle roots.

Founded in conjunction with the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, and funded by a university grant and aid from advocates such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the portable 10-week writing program — part practical poetry how-to, part creative therapy — achieves measurable gains despite unpredictable attendance and disparate abilities.

Hunt Hawkins, chair of FSU’s English department, declared Runaway With Words “the most important outreach program in our department and one of the most significant in the university.”

In addition to troubled youngsters Runaway now works with domestic abuse victims at Tallahassee’s Refuge House, female inmates in neighboring Jefferson County Correctional Institution, and disadvantaged preschoolers in San Francisco. The outreach effort garners assistance from FSU’s School of Social Work, and enlists a corps of students from the English department and Creative Writing Program, College of Education and School of Visual Arts and Dance. Once a pioneer in the service-learning realm, its credibility has been bolstered by subsequent development of similar initiatives at FSU and elsewhere, along with recognition early on from peers such as the University of California-Berkeley.

Test results support Runaway’s arts-based approach. Meanwhile, audiences applaud the poetry. “Those of us who engage in and respect creativity see the hopefulness of such expressions, even when they are speaking of suffering and abuse,” wrote Gardner in the 1996 introduction to “Runaway with Words: A Collection of Poetry from Florida’s Youth Shelters,” a bestseller for workshop partner and nationally-recognized poetry publisher Anhinga Press. There’s another anthology in the works.

Leon County’s alternative schools comprise Runaway’s local focus. Graduate student Carissa Neff calls these efforts “extraordinary.” After three years as a Runaway intern and teacher while pursuing her doctorate in creative writing, Neff is unequivocal. “This program changes lives.”

Second Chance agrees — based on subsequent diagnostic tests of basic reading and writing skills as well as social and emotional gains for youngsters confronting obstacles like sexual abuse, drug addiction and criminal charges. Last year at the school, Judy Leclere, an adjunct professor in FSU’s department of Childhood Education, Reading, and Disability Services, served as coordinator of a service-learning grant for which Runaway with Words was the centerpiece.

Leclere lauds the impact on 23 students who met and wrote weekly with Runaway teachers throughout the year. “Our success with the program was incredible, and we have a lot of statistics to back up this claim,” she said, citing an above-average growth in reading of 1.34 years on the standardized “STAR” reading test, and a 38 percent increase in test scores on the Florida-mandated “Writes Upon Request” examination.

But Leclere describes as “amazing” the significantly reduced numbers and intensity of criminal charges for the targeted group, adding, “It seems that poetry might have an effect on the criminal activity of juveniles.”

The hard creative work reaps other rewards. In 2003, middle and high school students completing the poetry-writing workshop at Second Chance were invited to attend a service-learning conference in Orlando. Teen poets from Leon County’s PACE Center for Girls, alumni of Runaway’s outreach there, made appearances closer to home when they shared their verses at the annual Anhinga Press-sponsored Spring Writers Festival.

More workshops are slated for both schools, including one beginning soon at PACE.

“When writing becomes part of a young person’s life, all options are open,” said Heller, the former student to whom co-founder Gardner credits the original workshop idea. Founder and director of San Francisco’s “WritersCorps” program for underserved youth, Heller praises Gardner — professor and scholar, editor and poet — for sharing her craft through service while inspiring others to do so.

Sheila Ortiz-Taylor, the English department’s associate chair, understands the vision that has fostered Runaway with Words. “For Joann Gardner, writing poetry is real work undertaken not just by professionals in academies but by real people in the real world.”

To learn more about Runaway with Words, visit www.runawaywithwords.com.