Writing isn’t Ian Garza’s favorite subject. The seventh-grader admittedly uses too much slang, and his battle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, makes it difficult to focus. “I get distracted easily, and staying on task is hard,” he said.

Like many of his classmates at KIPP Intrepid Preparatory School in Houston’s East End, Garza, 12, has a lot of creative ideas, but clearly expressing them in an essay is challenging. “It’s getting a lot easier though, because I know my mentor is watching my back,” he said.

The Writing to Inspire Successful Education (WISE) program connects University of Houston Honors College students from the Bonner Leaders Program to serve as writing mentors for seventh grade students at the public charter school. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) educates children from underserved communities at 26 Houston-area schools and many more nationwide.

“Writing is the foundation for how you think about the world and how you approach everything in your life. It’s the polished version of what you say and is so important for success in college and beyond,” said UH junior Serrae Reed, the WISE project lead.

While previously volunteering at a Houston-area high school, Reed was shocked to discover how many teenagers were deficient in basic writing skills. “It was hard to see high achieving students who didn’t have the writing background to compose great essays for their college applications or SAT and ACT tests,” Reed said. “Someone needed to help them sooner.”

Now, that’s exactly what she’s doing. In summer 2015, KIPP reached out to UH about forging a partnership, and Reed helped launch the WISE program that fall. It places Bonner Scholars in the KIPP classroom for one-on-one writing tutoring four days a week. The goals are to improve test scores, increase confidence and ultimately help more kids go to college.

"Before the mentors came, i was always nervous about my essay. Now I feel more comfortable and confident that I'll get a good grade."

Jacob Ortiz, 13-year-old KIPP student

“It’s kind of like cloning yourself as a teacher and then having a younger, hipper version of you to work with students. They’re phenomenal to have,” said Erica Rodriguez, a KIPP Intrepid writing teacher. “The students love working with the mentors because they’re closer to their age and give a different perspective on the lesson we’re writing about.”

The results have been nothing short of remarkable. On the 2016 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR writing test, 16 percent of KIPP Intrepid students received “commended” proficiency scores compared to just three percent the year prior—before the UH student mentors arrived.

“Before the mentors came, I was always nervous about my essay. Now I feel more comfortable and confident that I’ll get a good grade,” said 13-year-old Jacob Ortiz. “They really believe that we can become good writers and do well in life. They care about us, and that feels great.”

The impressive increase marked the first time in school history Intrepid scored above the state average. “This project is really about problem solving, organization and project-based learning. That’s what the Bonners get out of this,” said Shannon Keen, UH Honors College director of service learning. “They successfully pulled it off in ways I don’t think we could’ve imagined.”

Beyond helping students develop ideas, improve sentence structure or use proper punctuation, the roughly 40 UH mentors also open minds to what’s possible. It’s not uncommon for a tutoring session to shift from essay writing to a conversation about college.

“When I applied to college, my parents had just been laid off, so we were really concerned about how we would pay. I had to work really hard to secure scholarship money,” said sophomore mentor Michelle Tran. “Now I can show these kids that it’s possible, and they can do it too.”

In addition to the in-person tutoring sessions, mentors upload a pre-recorded video every week with a personalized, line-by-line edit of a student’s essay. “They get very creative by telling jokes, using music or even a clip from a funny online video. It’s really engaging to the kids because it’s content tailored directly for each student,” said Rodriguez.

Mechanical Engineering student Kaitlin Miller pictured with KIPP students.

The Bonner Leaders, who seek out service opportunities to build a better community and alleviate factors contributing to poverty, are now working to make the program even more effective through research. The middle school students rate the weekly videos to gauge the impact of digital learning. It will also help measure student engagement when compared to test results.

“We need to focus on the efficacy. If we are going to work in the community, we want to make sure we’re actually making a positive difference. We need to be able to correlate this success to our involvement,” said Keen.

This spring, the WISE program expanded to KIPP Liberation in Houston’s historic Third Ward. “UH does not live in a bubble, and KIPP does not live in a bubble. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. The winners are the children,” said KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg. “UH, and the Bonner Scholars in particular, have a passion for improving our community. This was a natural fit taking advantage of UH student talents to benefit more children.”

Helping more people in need is something Serrae Reed, who’s majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in Spanish and math, wishes even more UH students would do.

“Some students have this idea about people living in Third Ward and it’s not positive, but they never go out to meet the people. It’s a shame, because Houston is my home and my community. I embrace it,” said Reed. “Our Bonner founding director, Andrew Hamilton, said ‘Be ashamed to graduate from UH without having won a victory for the people of Houston,’ and that’s my motivation.”

Ian Garza’s motivation, meanwhile, is to make his family proud by becoming a better student. “I might like to be an engineer at my dad’s company one day,” he said. “I feel like now I have a better chance to do something with my life.”