In a time of budget cuts and ballooning class sizes, a new program at El Cerrito High School is giving students individualized attention and helping to improve their writing skills.

The WriterCoach Connection trains volunteers to help students work on writing assignments from their English classes, regardless of their proficiency level, during weekly, individual sessions.

"The one-on-one attention is really important to academic achievement," said Robert Menzimer, executive director of Community Alliance for Learning, the nonprofit organization that created the program. "Somebody is sitting down with them with nothing on the agenda but paying attention to them."

The WriterCoach Connection program began in Berkeley 10 years ago, and it has since expanded to Oakland and Albany. El Cerrito High was the first school in West Contra Costa to adopt it, after parents became concerned last year about students' writing skills.

Todd Groves, the parent of a sophomore, has led the effort to establish the program in West Contra Costa and says it has changed the atmosphere at the school.

"It instills a sense of optimism," Groves said. "The kids are changing. They're feeling heard for the first time after years of 40-kid classes. It transforms their view of adults, or at least gives them a bridge to relate."

El Cerrito's program has 36 coaches working with 56 students in two English classes focused on English-learners. Volunteers visit the campus one day a week, meeting with each student for about 25 minutes and working on whatever assignment the teacher has given.

The students are "smart and motivated, and really appreciated the one-on-one attention," said Maureen Dixon, a professional writer who volunteers with the program. "It's nice to give to someone who wants to receive."

Kenny Kahn, a teacher at El Cerrito High who is working with WriterCoach Connection in his classes, said he's seen a big difference in students' abilities thanks to the volunteers.

"This really pushes the kids along," he said. "It empowers the students. They have confidence to speak in class. They're learning to craft arguments in their writing."

Kahn called the support he's received as a teacher "a blessing."

"They give the one-on-one attention that I alone cannot give," he said. "I can't stretch myself 35 ways in a 90-minute period. To have the coaches come in, it's like having 35 teachers here."

To learn more, go to www.writercoachconnection.org or call 510-528-5066. To volunteer with the El Cerrito High School program, e-mail volunteer.ecwcc@gmail.com.

Shelly Meron covers education in West Contra Costa. Follow her at Twitter.com/shellymeron.