The Capital Area Peer Tutoring Association: Legitimizing and Sustaining the Work of Secondary School Writing Centers

Kate Hutton is the director of the Herndon Writing Center at Herndon High School in Fairfax County, VA, and the Vice President of the Capital Area Peer Tutoring Association. She served on an IWCA-sponsored panel of Secondary School Writing Center Directors at NCTE 2016 entitled, “Writing Centers as Sites of Advocacy.”

In the past decade, the Secondary School Writing Center (SSWC) movement has gained tremendous momentum and traction, and perhaps no region has seen such rapid growth in the establishment of SSWCs as the greater Washington, D.C. area. When I became co-director of the Herndon Writing Center in 2012, I was excited about what our center could do within our school. It wasn’t until I became involved with the network of SSWCs that eventually became the Capital Area Peer Tutoring Association (CAPTA) that I recognized how important it is for me to engage in a professional community dedicated to celebrating and supporting the work that SSWCs do. In an effort to highlight the ways in which CAPTA has unified and amplified the voices of SSWCs, I reached out to long-time and new CAPTA members to ask them to share how our network has helped them to legitimize and sustain the work we all do in our SSWCs.

CAPTA has grown out of what was once an informal network of SSWCs that began in Fairfax County, Virginia. Amber Jensen established one of the first area SSWCs at Edison High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2009, and by 2011, SSWCs had established enough of a presence in the region to warrant partnering with the University of Maryland and George Mason University in hosting what has become an annual peer tutoring conference hosted by CAPTA. “From the beginning, it was evident that the sustainability of our centers would require working together to develop a vision for the role of an SSWC director and to collaborate on creating and sharing resources specifically tailored to our contexts,” Jensen explains. “The growth of SSWCs in our area, I think, is directly related to the work of this informal network of directors to create and share replicable implementation models, to collaborate in creating and modifying resources, and to support and share the emotional labor of defining and continually negotiating our positions in our schools and within the greater writing center scholarly community.”

In 2014, six SSWC Directors—Amber Jensen of Edison High School; Beth Blankenship of Oakton High School; Alison Hughes of Centreville High School; Jenny Goransson of West Springfield High School; Hannah Baran of Albemarle High School; and me—officially founded CAPTA, an organization dedicated to building community among, promoting advocacy for, and supporting the development and sharing of resources for new and existing SSWCs in the greater Washington, DC, area.

The CAPTA Executive Board at CAPTA 2016

While many of us acknowledged the need for and sought out opportunities to connect with other university writing centers around the country via existing peer tutoring networks, we quickly realized that SSWCs, their directors, and their tutors faced challenges and opportunities unique to the world of secondary schools. CAPTA was born of the need to create a sustainable network that specifically catered to our needs, that legitimized our work, and that encouraged scholarship in the field of SSWCs.

Janice Jewell, founder of the Herndon Writing Center, reflects, “The creation of CAPTA gave a wider sense of legitimacy to the fledgling writing centers. I think that as centers become established, participation in CAPTA normalizes these programs, so that once established, they become part of their communities, and the impulse to do away with them can subside.” As a diverse group of directors from schools with diverse needs, the formalization of the CAPTA network helped us to establish norms and identify our own best practices for sustaining successful SSWCs.

Trisha Vamosi, Director of the Eagle Writing Center at Osbourn High School in Manassas, VA, and CAPTA’s website curator, has found “the resources and guidance from other directors to be overwhelmingly supportive. CAPTA has provided not only an irreplaceable resource toolkit, but a space inviting constant networking” among directors in the field.

CAPTA now has 32 member schools, and we have expanded well beyond just the Washington, D.C., area. At one of our earliest SSWC conferences, 135 tutors from 20 schools gathered at George Mason University to discuss tutoring best practices and how to successfully operate a writing center within the context of secondary schools. Our fifth annual SSWC conference, “CAPTA 2016: Vision and Revision in the Center,” hosted nearly 500 tutors, directors, and administrators from 48 middle schools, high schools, and universities as far north as New Hampshire, as far south as Florida, and as far west as Ohio. One of the key areas of growth at these conferences has been opportunities for tutors themselves to conduct and share research unique to their experiences tutoring in and supporting the administrative work of SSWCs. These kinds of experiences are unprecedented for young tutors and novice contributors to our field.

A busy day in the Herndon Writing Center

Renee Brown, Director of the Peters Township Middle School Writing Center in McMurray, PA, and CAPTA’s Middle School Representative, has found that “there are only a limited number of opportunities for middle and high school students to present at a conference like CAPTA’s. The focus is on student tutors and their work.” Her tutors’ attendance at and contribution to CAPTA reflects another area of growth in our organization and in our field more broadly: the inclusion of middle school centers, which she now leads as a growing area of focus and development.

Hannah Baran, Director of Studio C at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA, and CAPTA At-Large Board Member, shares that for her tutors, “the CAPTA conference is a focal point of our school year. Students look forward to presenting and think about their topics for months beforehand. It’s rewarding for them to see that they are part of a larger network of students doing this vital work, and we always come home with exciting new ideas for our center.” While Hannah’s tutors have traveled from central Virginia to attend every tutor conference, she and her tutors are now joined by a network of directors and tutors from outside of the original region of our organization’s focus. With three Board Members from outside the greater Washington D.C. area and with one school as far as Beirut, Lebanon in the CAPTA network, one of CAPTA’s missions for 2017 is to rename and rebrand itself to become the first international secondary school writing center organization prior to our conference this December.

Personally, CAPTA has helped me to find support and community in what can otherwise be an isolated, ambiguous, and previously undefined role within my school community. Through CAPTA,

“Raise your hand if you learned something new at CAPTA 2016!”

I have been able to engage in discussions with fellow directors about how to best train my tutors to serve my school’s growing population of English Language Learners, how to provide opportunities for my tutors to collaborate with their peers in high-level and exciting ways, and how to best advocate for our program in times of decreasing budgets and changing administrations. As Dr. Jennifer Wells shared in her keynote address at our 2016 conference, “If you don’t define your narrative, someone else will.” CAPTA has helped me to refine, to claim, and to advocate for the narrative of the Herndon Writing Center, which I simply would not have been able to do without the support network CAPTA has built.

CAPTA is excited to be hosting our first ever tutor leadership retreat this summer. Secondary School Writing and Peer Tutoring Center directors and tutors are invited to join us August 15-16 at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison, VA, to collaborate with centers and to plan for the year ahead.

SSWCs near and far: we hope you will also join us for our 6th Annual Secondary School Writing Center Conference, “People, Passion, and Purpose,” on Friday, December 8, at George Mason University’s Arlington Campus.


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3 thoughts on “The Capital Area Peer Tutoring Association: Legitimizing and Sustaining the Work of Secondary School Writing Centers

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