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New York State Literary Center
By Dale Davis

In 1991, I was invited to conduct a two-day writing program at The Alternative High School, Board of Cooperative Educational Services, First Supervisory District of Monroe County. The school, twenty-four years old at the time, was a program for students with severe learning and behavior problems. It had evolved into a "last stop" program for the hardest, most difficult high school students who were unwanted by their home school districts. I was asked to improve the reading and writing skills of the students. I listened to the students, asked them questions, and they wrote. The New York State Literary Center published Just Give Us a Chance, a book of the writing the students did during the two days. 

The next year I was invited to conduct a five-day writing program. During the five days I continued to listen to the students and began to develop a pedagogy to reach to high risk youth from what I was learning listening to them and working with them. I relied heavily on the research in Teaching Advanced Skills to At-Risk Students: Views from Research and Practice, edited by Barbara Means, Carol Chelmer, and Michael S. Knapp (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 1991). I used technology to develop non-traditional methods to teach reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking critically. The New York State Literary Center published I Like The Beat, a book of the writing by students during the five days. 

In 1993, the school requested a ten-day writing program and in 1994, twelve days. During these two years I introduced video as another tool for the development of both literacy and the narrative structure, and I began to incorporate the New York State Standards for English and Language Arts into an interdisciplinary curriculum. Research by Milbrey W. McLaughlin and Merita A. Irby in Urban Sanctuaries (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 1994) supported the pedagogy I was developing for what would become The Communication Project. Urban Sanctuaries strongly affirmed support for project based real world learning for at-risk students. 

In 1994, I was asked to create an installation on my work with high risk youth for exhibition at The American Council of The Arts in New York City. I created, "Let Me Tell You," using my photographs of Alternative High School students, their writing, and quotes from the media on young people. Media critic Jon Katz wrote an article on the installation and my work at The Alternative High School for New York Magazine (June 3, 1994).

"You have never heard from The Lost Boys and Girls of the Alternative High School near Rochester. And you probably never will again. That's too bad. Until recently an exhibit of the students' writings, called "Let Me Tell You," hung in the lobby of the American Council of The Arts in New York. A simple affair, it consisted of four 32-by-40-inch panels covered with writing, photographs, and clippings.

"But the message from the school—a last stop for the abandoned, struggling emotionally, or behaviorally disturbed, rejected, or unwanted students of four upstate counties—would put almost any journalism school's to shame. They are poignant, clear, and brutally direct. 

"But thanks to Dale Davis they get to be heard, who spends time with them each year and has written and published more than twenty books with troubled kids. 

"Aside from being great stories, tales from Dale Davis's kids are notable because they are so rarely heard."

The article generated a tremendous number of orders for Let Me Tell You, a book of writing on issues that directly affect their lives by more than thirty young men and women in the writing program at the Alternative High School. Orders for the book came from a variety of institutions and individuals, including Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Family House in Pittsburg, Legal Program Center for Public Resources, Paramount, and Oliver Stone. 

Let Me Tell You received national attention for two years through the publication of excerpts in newspapers throughout the country. The book was selected for inclusion in the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education (ERIC/CU) at Teachers College, Columbia University. In November 1994 I wrote an Op-Ed Column, "Let Me Tell You," for The New York Times on the students and their writing 

In 1995, The Alternative High School requested fifty days, and The Communication Project was formally inaugurated. In 1996, fifty days were increased to fifty-five days, and in 1997, sixty days. The Communication Project now had its own room, a small room off the library with images selected by the students and writing by the students on the walls, a small library, and a computer. Students referred to it as "the room."

In addition to the New York State Literary Center's publications of the writing by students in 
The Communication Project, in 1996 and 1997, two students won national poetry competitions; one student had an article published in Blue Jean Magazine, and another student's writing was included as part of an article on juvenile violence in Gannett Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle

The York State Literary Center's The Communication Project collaborated with CAMEO Feature News Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, Tufts University, an on-line service for journalists to inform the public about children's issues in 1998 and 1999. The CAMEO website cited The Communication Project as an example of the type of project for youth at-risk promoted by The President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. John Sylar's, a student at The Alternative High School, book, Black Men, published by the New York State Literary Center, was featured on the CAMEO website as an example of how to write a story. 

The Communication Project was featured at the National Dropout Prevention Center Network, New York State Education Department, New York State Education Association conference in 1999. The presentation included a screening of What Is The Communication Project, a video with thirteen Alternative High School students speaking about individual projects and the New York State Regents 

The success of The Communication Project with at-risk students led to its expansion, ten-day writing programs at additional sites: 

  • St. Joseph's Villa, a residential placement / treatment center for adolescent youth.
  • Threshold Center for Alternative Youth Services, a G.E.D. preparation program in collaboration with the Rochester City School District for students who have dropped out of school due to, for example, pregnancy, addiction, jail time, witnessing the murder if a loved one.
  • Clinton Avenue Learning Center, a program for students on long term suspension from the Rochester City School District.
  • Industry School, a juvenile justice facility for adjudicated young men, certified and operated by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
  • Halpern Education Center, a day treatment program of Hillside Children's Center.
  • The Oatka Satellite Group Home, operated by the Office of Children and Family Services as a transition residence for adolescent males between the ages of thirteen and seventeen who have lived in a secure residential detention facility after being adjudicated by the Family Court system for one to three years and who are nearing their time of release.
  • Josh Lofton Academy Rochester City School District.
  • Rochester Evening Reporting Center, Office of Children and Family Services. 

I produced my first CD in 2000. I saw producing a CD of students' reading their writing as another opportunity to develop the students' academic knowledge, social skills, and personal behaviors. Young Souls Speaking was the title of the first CD. The CD successfully motivated young people with low reading skills who refused to read aloud to become comfortable reading their own writing aloud in the recording studio. 

The Communication Project was featured at the National Dropout Prevention Center Conference in Baltimore, Maryland in 2001. A student from Rochester City School District's Clinton Avenue Learning Center read his writing and spoke about The Communication Project as part of the presentation.  

I have always believed in the potential of all young people. My experience working as a writer, publisher, and producer in educational settings affirmed for me that every young person has something to say. I wanted the New York Literary Center to be an organization where my belief in young people and my love of literature could be melded into an educational pedagogy. I wanted to challenge. If you are motivating someone to write poetry, you are motivating them on a very personal level. I wanted writing not only to improve basic literacy skills, but to inject a sense of community belonging; to give voice to lost childhoods and the struggle of daily life; to reach out with a strong, clear voice on identity, on communities, on education, and with a vision of how communities and schools can be better places.

The New York State Literary Center started to publish the writing of young people because these were books I wanted to read and to bring into classrooms with me. It was important to me for young people to read other young people's writing, and it was important to give young people an audience. Kids wanted to hear their own voices. After 9/11 we looked at what it means to be an American today. There was so much talk about the issue, yet no one had asked the young people with whom I worked -- and they were very anxious to be a part of the national dialogue. 

The Communication Project engaged students. Young people learn when they are interested and motivated and don't learn when they are bored and unable to relate to what is being taught. The Communication Project brought real life projects into the classroom to provide students with unusual opportunities, interesting projects, and tough problems to solve. 

The Communication Project created vehicles for disenfranchised young people to express themselves to enable them to reach out with their concerns, their thoughts, and their upspoken prayers. The Communication Project connected students to the real world. 

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

Tupac Amaru Shakur
Tupac Amaru Shakur. The Rose That Grew From Concrete. New York: Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster, 1999.

The New York State Literary Center's The Communication Project was made possible through the support of The New York State Council on Arts, The National Endowment for The Arts, Joan and Harold Feinbloom Supporting Foundation, New York State Music funds, Guido and Ellen Palma Foundation, GRA Associates Spinergy Direct, and East End Recording Studios.