About a dozen children are spread out at tables in the Simpson Street Free Press newsroom. They chat while poring over reference books and old issues of National Geographic to research stories. They jot down notes on large yellow pads.
Nancy Garduño, a bright teenager whose immigrant parents have an elementary school education, is reading a book. She says she dreams of attending UCLA or Duke after she graduates from high school. She has already applied for more than 20 college scholarships and received a few of them. Garduño, 17, has been working at Simpson Street since she was 8 years old and says she struggled in school -- especially with writing -- before that.
"It really stinks when you're stuck on a math problem and your friends can just go to their parents and ask for help, whereas I would have to wake up early and ride my bike to school to go talk to my teacher or something," Garduño says.
Simpson Street became the place where Garduño could work on her writing, get help with homework and learn how to search for scholarships.
"I know my parents can't afford it, which is why I didn't even think I was going to go to college," Garduño says. "But after getting some of those scholarships, it's looking more realistic now."
Simpson Street Free Press has been teaching kids to write and report for more than 20 years. The award-winning program started in a room at the Broadway-Simpson Street neighborhood center before moving across the street in 1996 to South Towne Mall. Over the years it has added more newsrooms and diversified its programming. Later this month it will launch Falk Free Press, its fourth newspaper, along with its first bilingual edition, La Prenza Libre de Simpson Street.
In recent years, amid concerns over the Madison school district's widening academic achievement gap between white students and students of color, Simpson Street cofounder and executive director Jim Kramer has become an evangelist for the program.
"Rigorous academics during out-of-school time works," says Kramer. "We are one of the only well-known Madison nonprofits that actually has a richly layered, finely honed, expertly developed curriculum."
Students and staff have become "activists" around the issue, adds Kramer.
"This achievement gap is in their bones and blood," he says. "To them, this is the pressing issue our community faces, and they are often frustrated by the way we tackle these issues."
Two frustrations top that list. Why does the community pour so much funding into after-school programs that focus on recreation and athletics rather than high-quality academics? And why are new programs needed to tackle the achievement gap when there are local efforts, including Simpson Street Free Press, with a proven track record?
"We need after-school basketball," says Kramer. "But research shows only high-quality after-school programming actually impacts achievement gaps."
A taste of real work
The editors at Simpson Street work with some 200 students a year and see the alarming effects of the achievement gap firsthand.
"The achievement gap in Madison is scary -- there's no other way to put it," says Stephanie Sykes, an assistant editor who works at Simpson Street's program at Glendale Elementary School, where students of color are in the majority.
"Working at Glendale, which is the lowest-performing elementary school in Madison, I see kids who have trouble writing their name, and they are about to go into middle school," adds Sykes.
Simpson Street's structured curriculum in a newsroom setting aims to give students a taste of the real world of work, complete with timesheets and monthly stipends.
Students research topics on their own and prepare about five drafts of every article before it gets published online or in sporadic print editions. The print copies are distributed across southern Wisconsin in schools, grocery stores and libraries.
But it doesn't feel like work to the students at Simpson Street.
"It's better here because we're more free, kind of," says Aubrianna Willard-Lee, 14. "At school we always have a teacher telling us what to do or telling us what to write."
Simpson Street Free Press isn't your traditional newspaper. You won't find stories about crime or local politics. Instead, the paper is filled with articles about animals, space, geology and history. There are book reviews, museum reviews and columns about the achievement gap and education.
"A lot of times in school you have writing assignments, but there's hardly ever any creative writing assignments," says Annie Shao, 20. "Writing articles here kind of gave me that throughout my high school years."
No one -- not even Kramer or the editors -- works at Simpson Street full-time. All eight editors are alumni of the press; three are young African American women and most are people of color. Some 14 retired and working teachers, journalists and writers serve as volunteers.
Students must work at Simpson Street a minimum of two hours a week. The average participant gets about two and a half hours of intensive writing, language arts and core-curriculum instruction per week, says Kramer.
Editors assign articles to beginning writers. As the students progress, they are given the freedom to write according to their own interests.
There are collateral benefits. "When you learn writing you're not just learning writing," Shao says. "You're learning important skills for basically succeeding in school and jobs and life."
Shao started a column, "Applied Academics with Annie," where she ponders the connections between science and her own life, including the science behind magnetic nail polish.
Simpson Street attracts many students of color but is open to everyone.
"Jim has always been very frank about race here. It's not some taboo topic that we don't ever talk about or anything," says Adaeze Okoli, 20. "I really find it refreshing because it's just natural here."
"To us, we're on the front lines of the modern civil rights movement," Kramer says. "We're involved in creating transformational change in the community."
Jim Kramer and a group of parents from Madison's south side -- Fannie Mims, Alberta Washington and Susan Pierce -- founded Simpson Street Free Press in 1992. They were motivated by their kids, who they feared were falling behind in school, especially in reading and writing.
In its early days, the program served about 15 kids at the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood center. But Kramer says they saw positive results right away.
"We made it a newspaper, we gave the kids business cards, and we told them they were doing an important job. That made the kids want to come," he says. "We hit on this formula as a way to get kids excited about practicing and polishing their academic skills."
Today, more than 100 kids are on a waiting list to participate in Simpson Street's various programs.
The original Simpson Street Free Press still operates out of South Towne Mall. Glendale Free Press began in 2002 and is run out of Glendale Elementary School. Wright Free Press, for students at Wright Middle School, launched in January 2013. It is located at Capital Newspapers Inc. on Fish Hatchery Road.
Simpson Street has expanded in other ways, too. It hosts mandatory book clubs, museum field trips, movie nights and lecture series. One of its most important functions is to get kids thinking about college early.
"I remember even when I was in seventh and eighth grade, Jim was like, 'You know, for every A you earn in high school, that's $1,000 in scholarship money,'" says Okoli. Okoli's hard work paid off. She is in her sophomore year at Ohio State University, where she's on a full scholarship.
A good model
But Kramer says Madison hasn't done enough when it comes to providing what he calls "rigorous" after-school programs.
"Madison has traditionally not wanted to invest or support high-quality out-of-school time," Kramer says. "Madison has traditionally been one of the communities that believes strongly in low- and medium-quality out-of-school time."
Kramer puts recreation programs and homework clubs in that "low- and medium-quality" category.
"I think in order to close the achievement gap, there has to be a wide variety of strategies that are trying to engage a variety of learners," says Diana Miller, the middle and high school supervisor for MSCR. Simpson Street Free Press, she adds, is "part of a solution, but they're not the only solution."
MSCR funds recreation programs, but also learning groups that provide enrichment and community centers where kids can safely hang out or do homework.
Madison school superintendent Jennifer Cheatham visited Simpson Street Free Press last summer after she joined the district and has been back about five times since, says Kramer. She told Isthmus around the time of her first visit that she was "excited to learn more about [Simpson Street]. I think it could serve as a good model for what other programs might do in the future."
Cheatham said the district would take an inventory of all the city's existing after-school programs.
"We will identify the programs that we think are powerful -- and my guess is that Simpson Street Free Press will be one of those -- and identify programs that need some shoring up," Cheatham said.
A new local initiative has launched in part to help with this task. The Madison Out-of-School Time initiative, or MOST, is looking at how to better coordinate after-school programs as part of addressing the achievement gap. Kramer, a member of the coalition, says he's hopeful about the group's efforts.
"We work in silos," says Kramer, referring to nonprofits in Madison. "I think we spend a lot of time, way too much, on competitive fundraising and everybody trying to do their own thing. It hinders our progress." He would like to see the community instead adopt the "best and most successful methods" for helping kids achieve academically.
"Let's stop all this competitive fundraising and work together," he says. "But I also want to see the pyramid inverted."
Doing it themselves
Kramer is steeped in education research and is a self-proclaimed nerd when it comes to studying out-of-school time on academic achievement. "Inverting the pyramid," he says, is about putting resources into teaching and tutoring rather than administrative salaries.
Simpson Street operates on a pipeline approach, where today's editors were yesterday's students, and current students are already thinking about becoming editors.
"My mom says that I need to keep my A-game up because one day I'm going to be Jim," Willard-Lee says, adding, "I mean, Deidre or Ashley."
That would be editors Ashley Crawford and Deidre Green.
Green, the managing editor, started working at Simpson Street when she was 12 on the advice of a teacher. She's been there ever since, moving from writer to teen editor and columnist.
"Who better to deliver that curriculum to younger kids than kids who are in college and write well and have already done it themselves?" Kramer asks.
"Almost all grew up in these neighborhoods," he adds. "I can't stress how great they are in executing these lesson plans."
Green will graduate this spring from UW-Madison with a degree in English and would love to return to Simpson Street full time.
"She is my heir apparent," says Kramer.
Kramer says being able to hire alums after they graduate from college would go a long way toward sustaining the work of Simpson Street and extending its reach. The organization currently receives funding from businesses, local organizations, private individuals and the city of Madison.
Kramer does a lot of grant-writing these days but wouldn't mind seeing the city step up its game in order to keep folks like Green around. City funding was once $35,000 a year but has dropped to $21,000.
"Do we want Deidre Green working downtown or on the front lines?" Kramer asks.
Green says she herself was not aware of the achievement gap's prevalence until she became a student at Simpson Street. All these years later, she is a true believer in the power of the program.
"I honestly think we are able to give kids a sense of academic self-confidence they don't necessarily get in school," she says. "The fact that they're able to write about a wide variety of things, read and write on a one-on-one basis [with volunteers and editors], it's a phenomenal opportunity. It really helps the kids to improve and feel better about their abilities. They see they're able to do it and feel they can do it themselves."