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Getting to Know Sharon Washington

From faculty member at Kent State University and Springfield College to visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and administrator at Spelman and Bennett colleges, Dr. Sharon Washington has now arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, as director of the National Writing Project.

A consistent thread throughout her two-decade career has been improving teaching and learning. In Massachusetts at Springfield College, she founded Project SPIRIT to improve student retention and graduation and to encourage high school students of color to attend college.

With her appointment as executive director of NWP in December, Washington is continuing that emphasis through a program that focuses on training teachers to improve students’ writing skills.

“This project is about saying that the people who really know what’s going on in classrooms are the teachers; we value their knowledge and experience,” Washington says. “They can go on and become facilitators and leaders of other workshops and may go on to write articles, get into inquiry groups and conduct research.”

The NWP, based on UC-Berkeley’s campus, promotes itself as “a teacher professional development organization dedicated to improving writing and learning in the nation’s schools.” It has attained an impressive track record, supported by survey data, of raising students’ writing levels by improving the abilities of the teachers.

Researchers at the University of Missouri- St. Louis conducted a study of the Mehlville School District’s Gateway Writing Project, which is a part of the NWP.

On the basis of quantitative and qualitative research, the 2007 report stated that the program’s student achievement increased overall more than that of comparison students.

Washington says this is just one of several studies showing similar results. “It’s clear that we are making a difference in student performance in writing,” she says.

NWP now has sites on about 200 additional campuses, where teachers attend training seminars, and has partnerships with K-12 schools throughout the country. Washington says the project sponsors about 7,000 individual programs collectively a year, nationally reaching 135,000 participants — not including the students who are ultimately impacted by the programs.

Based on the “Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2007,” by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, writing skills of eighth- and 12th-graders improved last year. Despite the gains, only a third of eighth-graders and less than a fourth of high school seniors tested at or above the proficient level.

“Too few students scored at the top of the chart — at the proficient and advanced levels in writing,” Washington said when the “Nation’s Report Card” was released in April. “We must use these results to continue to identify the most effective instructional practices to move students toward the higher levels of writing achievement.”

Washington is the first woman and the first A f r i c a n – American to lead the NWP since it was founded in 1974. Washington earned a doctorate at The Ohio State University in 1988, a master’s from Central Michigan University and a bachelor’s at Ohio State.

Her recent writings include “Fostering Women’s Multicultural Alliances as an Academic Administrator,” in the spring 2007 issue of the online publication On Campus With Women published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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