HubWeek Change Maker: Sarah Poulter

Executive Director, WriteBoston

HubWeek Change Maker Sarah Poulter —HubWeek

Sarah Poulter assumed the role of Executive Director in July 2016, after five years of working for WriteBoston in roles ranging from Grant Writer, Director of New Business and Evaluation, and Deputy Director. Sarah has been deeply involved with fundraising and development, the growth of WriteBoston’s partnerships, and overhaul of WriteBoston’s programmatic evaluation. Sarah brings 20 years of leadership in intermediary organizations, as well as experience in management and partnership building through her time as Program Director for City Connects, Project Director for Boston Plan for Excellence, and her work at the Boston PIC. She earned her Master’s Degree in the Education, Policy, and Management Program at Harvard University.

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Lindsay Gearheart: Tell me about your background and how you made your way to WriteBoston.

Sarah Poulter: I joined WriteBoston in 2010 after 20 years at education-related organizations across Boston, all focused on improving the educational outcomes of Boston Public School students. I went back to school for my Master’s in Education, Policy, and Management at Harvard. At the Boston Private Industry Council, WriteBoston’s founding Executive Director was my supervisor. I joined WriteBoston in 2010, and since then, I’ve played several different roles, from part-time Grant Writer to Executive Director. In that time, WriteBoston has grown from a small city initiative to a fully independent nonprofit impacting over 12,000 students every year.

My passion for education is fueled by the insatiable curiosity of my two children, enrolled in the Boston Public Schools, and my husband, a civics and history teacher at the Curley K-8 public school in Jamaica Plain. I’m also inspired by the students I meet in my work, and the teachers who work tirelessly to support them.  We are regularly bombarded with bad news about our public education system, so I’m grateful to have a vantage point where I can see the passion, creativity, and tenacity of young people shining brightly.

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LG: Could you introduce our audience to what WriteBoston is? What’s its mission, and how do you go about achieving those ideals?

SP: WriteBoston is a nonprofit that aims to empower young people with writing, critical thinking, and communication skills for successful futures. We do this in two ways: a youth journalism program with wraparound support for teens, and comprehensive professional development services for educators. Working with educators in addition to students substantially broadens our audience–think about how many students a teacher works with every day! This ripple effect allows a small nonprofit like WriteBoston to have a wide reach: our work impacts over 12,000 young people each year. 

LG: Let’s talk about the Teens in Print student journalism program. With the media landscape what it currently is, why does WriteBoston prioritize teaching students about journalism?

SP: Today’s media landscape has grown incredibly complex. This generation of young people are barraged with more information and more communication channels than any other before them. They’re tasked with determining what’s opinion, what’s fact, and what’s fake–it’s no easy feat. 

One reason we prioritize journalism is to give young people the critical thinking tools to navigate this landscape. But we also want teens to be part of the conversation. The middle and high schoolers who write for our citywide newspaper, Teens in Print, build confidence and self-advocacy writing for an authentic audience. They cover the issues that matter to them, and most often, they’re tackling tough topics. Last year, a group of students collaborated on an op-ed response to the Parkland shootings; others have written a hard news story about voting advocacy, an advice piece for first-generation college students, and a well-researched article about the damage of divorce, just to name a few. If you want to dive in more deeply, check out bostontip.com

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The Teens in Print program also uses journalism as an avenue for students to build academic, professional, and interpersonal skills that go beyond writing. The steps they take to reach publication–contacting multiple professionals for interviews, conducting research–build confidence and communication abilities that put them on the path to success.

LG: With the incredible diversity of our city, how does WriteBoston support students with a range of English language skills?

SP: Boston and the Gateway City schools are home to an increasing number of students with different levels of English fluency. In Boston, 32% of students are classified as English Language learners; in places like Chelsea, Everett, and Salem, where we do a lot of our work with educators, that number is even higher.

Bilingualism is an incredible asset–we encourage students to hone and showcase this skill. We also recognize that being fluent in written and spoken English broadens a young person’s education and employment options. Today, our work with educators is focused on helping teachers build a toolkit that is responsive to the increasing majority of English learners in schools. In the Chelsea Public Schools, where English learners make up 38% of the student body, we’ve tailored our professional development to address this pressure point, and help Chelsea schools grow their skills and confidence in working with a diverse cohort of students. We also have a strong, decade-long relationship with Boston’s immigrant high school, Boston International Newcomers Academy, where we’ve offered one-on-one tutoring for students as well as instructional coaching for educators teaching all different subjects, from English, to history, to science.

Boston’s business and political spheres need more diverse voices. Across all our programming, we aim to propel talented, diverse youth into leadership positions.

LG: How do you collaborate with other organizations focused on literacy and writing for students in eastern Massachusetts?

SP: In recent years, we’ve made it a priority to identify local organizations serving diverse youth and bringing our teen journalism programming to those organizations as a way of broadening our reach.  Through collaboration, we’ve expanded our footprint and been able to develop the self-advocacy and communication skills of many more people. 

Our professional development work extends beyond schools: we offer instructional trainings for organizations like Tenacity and City Year, whose employees work with youth on a daily basis. This kind of flexibility is what makes WriteBoston’s professional development unique. We don’t believe in one-size-fits-all professional development; we tailor all of our workshops and coaching support to the educator, their environment, and their students.

We see ourselves as part of a wider network of literacy and writing organizations in Boston, and we do our best to make referrals and recommendations when it comes to the students and teachers we serve. We’re always seeking opportunities for deeper collaboration!

LG: In September, it was announced that you would be sunsetting your writing centers. Can you talk about why you made this decision and what the future looks like for WriteBoston?

SP: It’s important for all nonprofits to continually self-evaluate. We need to make ourselves vulnerable and ask the big-picture questions, like: What other organizations are doing similar work? Are there opportunities to collaborate? Are there any community needs that aren’t being addressed right now? When WriteBoston was founded in 2002, one of the hallmark programs was our in-school writing centers that paired volunteer tutors with students to give one-on-one writing support. In the years since, other nonprofits have committed to similar programs, and funders have made this program model a priority. 

This uptick in the number of in-school writing centers was very exciting–but it made us re-evaluate our place at the table. So last June, after a strategic phase-out, we closed our last writing center at Boston International Newcomers Academy and transitioned one-on-one writing support at the school to 826 Boston, another literacy nonprofit that has committed to growing their writing center program. 

Multiple organizations running similar programming doesn’t benefit our city long-term. We’ve decided to reinvest our energy in deepening the programs that are unique to WriteBoston: our suite of teen journalism programs and the professional development services we provide to educators. We’re excited to contribute to the literacy landscape in new ways. We’ve already bumped up our college and career readiness supports for students, and we’ve crossed state lines for the first time ever to offer professional development to the Burlington Public Schools in Vermont. We’re well on our way to achieving an ambitious growth plan: to serve 20,000 new students by 2028. 

We’re proud to be part of a shifting educational paradigm in Greater Boston. As a community, we’re starting to understand that a primary barrier to educational attainment is student engagement. Whether we’re running academically enriching and fun programming for students, or teaching educators how to bring students into meaningful conversation in the classroom, WriteBoston’s work aims to put students at the center of their own learning.


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