Helping our kids write well: West Hartford Rotary’s Writing Project

Daniel Penn - In the News

by Tony Rodriguez, President, Daniel Penn Associates

Inc. Magazine recently cited a study from CollegeBoard that finds blue chip businesses spend as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training every year. Of this budget, $2.9 billion is spent on current employees – not new hires.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio shed light on a new report by Education Reform Now that says under-prepared students and their mostly middle-and high- income families are shelling out $1.5 billion for remedial high school courses after the students enter college!

Students from West Hartford Connecticut’s Bristow, Sedgwick and King Phillip Middle Schools read their outstanding essays for Rotary’s “Be a Gift to the World” writing project during a luncheon at University of St. Joseph.

Students from West Hartford Connecticut’s Bristow, Sedgwick and King Phillip Middle Schools read their outstanding essays for Rotary’s “Be a Gift to the World” writing project during a luncheon at University of St. Joseph.

We must all do better to help our children read and write well in grade, middle and high school. For the past 22 years, the Rotary Club of West Hartford, Connecticut has partnered with English teachers at our city’s three middle schools – King Phillip, Sedgwick and Bristow – to incorporate an essay-writing contest into the schools’ curriculum.

We know that essays are an important way for students to improve their writing and critical thinking skills. Rotary’s writing contest focuses students’ attention on a topic of their choosing, using that year’s Rotary theme as their guide. Since the project’s inception in 1994, more than 12,000 West Hartford 6th grade students have crafted relevant, poignant and emotional essays.

During school assemblies to kick off the project, we talk about the scope of Rotary and the significant impact we have in helping humanity throughout the world. We also talk about Rotary’s motto – Service Above Self – that defines our organization’s 106 years of service.

The student essays must be at least 500 words in length and be able to be read in 3-5 minutes. The students dedicate 3-4 weeks as part of their school curriculum working on the project in their English classes.

Through examples, anecdotes and personal stories, this year 800 of West Hartford’s 6th grade students wrote about what the 2016 Rotary theme “Be a Gift to the World” meant to them.

In March, we celebrated the writing project’s culmination with a luncheon at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford. Based on the high quality of their work, 32 students represented the three schools during the luncheon. Eight students read their amazing essays to a supportive audience of teachers, families and Rotarians.

Many of the students’ “Be a Gift to the World” essays moved us to laughter…and to tears.

  • Usman Ahmed of Bristow Middle School wrote about the doctor who saved his mother’s life, then gave her the hope and strength to recover for her children’s sake.
  • Kaitlyn Capano of King Phillip Middle School wrote about President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt’s daring and precocious daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth who “ate up the world” with her desire to learn, do and participate.
  • Ellie Soucy of Sedgwick Middle School wrote about the dedication, enthusiasm and support the late Mr. Emshoff selflessly gave to Wolcott Grade School students as custodian, friend and all around cheerleader.
  • Peyton Jopeck of King Phillip Middle School wrote about his grandfather Dziadek, whose joy of life and family was not diminished during Hitler’s Poland, his family members’ death or his own terminal illness.

In recognition for the work done by all the project’s student writers, the Rotary Club of West Hartford made a $250 donation on the students’ behalf to the charity of their choice: Water for South Sudan,a Rochester, New York-based 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization which provides the people of South Sudan access to clean, safe water and works to improve hygiene practices in the areas of greatest need. As of May 2015, Water for South Sudan has successfully drilled 257 borehole wells, bringing clean, safe water to hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan.

Through our biannual Writing Project, West Hartford Rotary wants to help students understand how important writing is to their future. We also want them to learn of the many ways in which they or others can be a gift to the world, how they can make a positive impact, and how they can build a better tomorrow for all people. These are the key ingredients we hope they take with them to high school, college, careers and fulfilling, participative lives.


Tony Rodriguez, a past president of the West Hartford Rotary Club and a Paul Harris Fellow, has led the club’s Writing Project for more than two decades. He is president of Daniel Penn Associates, LLC, a management consulting firm serving the lean operational needs of manufacturing, government, financial services, utilities and health care sectors.

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