- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

RICHMOND — Lashawndra Dockery arrived at Hampton University ready to jump into journalism and wow the world with her words.

But she soon realized that what she had in ambition, she lacked in skill.

“I wanted to do things, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” the Inglewood, Calif., sophomore said.

Troubled by students with high grades but poor grammar and spelling, journalism administrators at historically black Hampton have opened a writing academy to improve the skills of the next generation of minority reporters.

Sixty-seven students are enrolled in the Academy of Writing Excellence. They meet for writing labs, complete special writing assignments, and get one-on-one mentoring sessions with local journalists and opportunities to go on school-sponsored field trips.

“It is for the student who wants to go above and beyond,” said Will Sutton, head of the program in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

Dean Tony Brown, a former television commentator, created the program in response to entrance exams that showed students still struggled with the basic mechanics of English.

“Fewer and fewer high school graduates are able to read and write well,” Mr. Brown said. “Most students that I’m running into have not had grammar, punctuation and spelling since elementary school.”

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., school that trains professional journalists, said grammar often takes a back seat among young people versed in the slang of Internet chat rooms and instant messages.

“Young people are living their lives, in many cases, sort of electronically,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s not that teachers aren’t trying to teach the mechanics of language. It’s just that those things aren’t reinforced enough in other places in the student’s experience.”

Since taking over Hampton’s journalism school in 2004, Mr. Brown also has added a mentoring program, regular meetings with freshmen and an anti-plagiarism campaign.

He also has brought stability to the school after a 2003 controversy that erupted when Hampton lost a $55,000 grant from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The action came after administrators confiscated some copies of the student newspaper.

Students said it was because they failed to give front-page play to a letter from the university president lambasting their article on poor sanitation in the cafeteria.

The paper later agreed to run a reprinted issue of the Script featuring JoAnn Haysbert’s letter on the cover in exchange for the formation of a task force to examine the future of the newspaper.

In September, Miss Haysbert left Hampton to accept the presidency at Langston University, the only historically black university in Oklahoma.

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