Jai Tanju, 1999

Jaime Wright

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updated 08.15.2003

A Day Streetside

In a basement-level classroom of the Ben Franklin Middle School in San Francisco, California, the bell rings as the teacher makes sure kids are sitting upright and attentive in their seats. Something special is happening today. In front of long, tattered tables shoved into a U shape, facilitator Anna Luera of Streetside Stories writes a list of what “Every Story Needs” on a large sketchpad held up by an easel that looks like it was borrowed from a game of Pictionary.

     Streetside Stories is a San Francisco nonprofit literary arts program that works with seven different middle schools in the San Francisco School District. Streetside conducts several two-week programs, both during and after school, which help students with reading, writing, and oral communication skills.

     With only ten students, Larkin’s class is smaller than most of the classes that facilitators Anna Luera and Mei-ying Ho encounter, so the women are able to work one-on-one with the students each day throughout their two-hour session. However, Larkin’s class also provides Anna and Mei-ying with some unique challenges.

     Larkin’s students range from sixth to eighth grade, and their reading and writing skills vary from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. The wide range in ability makes the experience “like teaching in an old-time schoolhouse,” says Larkin. Without a lot of one-on-one help, she believes that these children will definitely get left behind.

     Larkin holds Governor Gray Davis’ proposed cuts in education as partially responsible for jeopardizing the opportunities of her students. These have caused San Francisco school districts to freeze all money to extra programs such as Streetside. This helps perpetuate an understaffed special education program, which, in turn, compounds problems in poor neighborhoods where many parents can’t afford tutors for their kids, let alone instructors with special education credentials.

     It’s a good thing that Larkin feels emotionally drawn to this line of work. Forced to conduct classes in a storage area filled with heavily used equipment, Larkin understandably welcomes any help she is offered from outside the school system. Today, Larkin receives more assistance than usual. Along with Streetside’s paid staff members Mei-ying and Anna, three volunteers have joined the class: Diane Fraser, a freelance technical writer; Thuy Ngo, an art school student; and Larkin’s roommate, Janice Matchek, who comes in every Wednesday for a an hour before going to work as a graphic designer.

     Too bad every day can’t be like this. Between the volunteers, facilitators, and Larkin, each student receives personal assistance. Even 12-year-old Shiree, who missed class the day before, gets enough help to get caught up to the other students.

     Each year, Streetside compiles an anthology of stories written around a central topic. Past subjects have included changes, celebrations, travels, dreams, and challenges. This year’s theme involves choices and decisions. Though each student writes about the same topic, the individual outcomes are far from predictable.

     In the 2001 anthology Hooray! Stories of Celebrations by San Francisco Youth, Karen Torres, 12, describes the horrific shooting of her best friend during the girl’s Quinceanera (see, p. 41). The murder was an act of revenge by members of the friend’s older sisters’ rival gang.

     Anna and Mei-ying both praise the Streetside program for allowing students to speak up and realize that they have a voice. “We give them tools to express themselves,” explains Mei-ying. Often, students find writing stories to be a cathartic experience.

     One shining example of this is 12-year-old Travell Atkinson’s “Bricks on My Back,” (see, p. 41) a story that appeared in the 2002 anthology Everything’s Different Now: Stories of Change by San Francisco Youth. Travell recounts the arrest and incarceration of his older cousin. Mei-ying says that in the beginning of the program Travell was acting out a lot in class, getting in trouble, and getting sent out. On the last day, when Travell was behind, Mei-ying worked with him to finish his story.

     “He wrote about being angry and getting in a ton of fights at school. And then one day his mom told him that it doesn’t matter how many fights you get in, it won’t get your cousin out of jail,” recalls Anna. “A lot of kids are angry and I don’t know if kids know why they’re angry.” Anna and Mei-ying both describe Travell as appearing relieved after this exercise; they claim that it helped Travell to better understand his anger.

     Not all stories are as emotionally intense. One story in Everything’s Different Now recounts how getting a computer and being able to send instant messages to friends changed a student’s life. In Larkin’s class, a student named Dechocta chose to write about Furbies. Toward the end of the class, his running title was “The Legend of the Furbies.”

     The history of Streetside began in 1989, when the brothers Levy—Seth and James—biked from Maine to California. They stopped at schools along the way and worked with kids to write stories. The brothers would then read these stories to other students in different communities, offering the kids a sense of what it was like to live in other places.

     In 1991, the brothers founded Streetside Stories. It began its program with 60 students in two San Francisco schools; the program now reaches 800 students in seven different middle schools in San Francisco.

     Roughly 1/4 of the students’ stories will be published. The decision process varies from teacher to teacher. Some teachers pick the best work, while others choose stories of students that have been struggling. Some instructors base selections on the votes of their students in their class. Larkin’s group is so small that, most likely, any student who brings a signed permission slip from a parent will be automatically chosen. But Larkin says that a discouraging lack of parent involvement means that even this doesn’t always happen.

     Each participating student receives a copy of the anthology, as does the school library. Some San Francisco public libraries order the anthology. Anthologies can be purchased on Streetside’s website, at www.streetside.org. Each copy sold helps the program stay alive and reach more children.

     The last year has been rough on the Streetside program. According to Program Director Britt Aageson, much of the money schools usually set aside for the Streetside program had to be used for basic supplies like paper and books, due to the proposed budget cuts.

     This did not stop Streetside from offering its service. “We made the decision to provide some of those schools with workshops for free because ultimately, our mission is to serve the students who need it most,” says Aageson. “The challenge will be in providing services next year.”

     If the budgeting for schools remains strained, difficult decisions will have to be made by Streetside in balancing their mission to continue helping those who need it the most with the measures required to keep their doors open.

     Economic difficulties notwithstanding, Streetside has plans to expand its program. “I think we are particularly interested in expanding the program so that we can work with the students throughout their middle school career,” says Aageson. Until this year, Streetside only taught sixth graders. “This year we added our after school programs for seventh and eighth graders ... where we already do an in-school program for sixth graders.” Streetside started a teacher training program two years ago to help provide instructors outside of the San Francisco district with the tools to initiate the writing program on their own.

For more information on how to volunteer, purchase an anthology, or receive teacher training, contact:

Streetside Stories
285 Ninth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: 415-864-5221
Fax: 415-864-5628

Previously published in Comfusion Magazine: Spring 2003