At first, they wrote for grades - perfunctorily, without heart.
But then, a funny thing happened once the teens at Benjamin Franklin High School realized adults actually wanted to know what being students in the Philadelphia School District felt like, even if the words were dark and difficult to hear.
They wrote about overcrowded classes, fights in hallways, not enough books or counselors or supplies. They wrote about losing friends to gun violence. And it began to matter.
"I felt heard," said Dwayne Wilson, a senior at Ben Franklin. "It felt good."
Wilson, 18, looked a little amazed last week as he sat in the school auditorium and watched Temple University performers act out his words in The Receiving Schools Project, a series of monologues and scenes written by Wilson and other Ben Franklin students and produced through a partnership with Philadelphia Young Playwrights.
The project was designed to give voice to students affected by the School District's 2013 decision to close 24 schools. Ben Franklin absorbed 350 students from Vaux and University City High Schools, and, students emphasized, the transition was far from seamless.
After months of fine-tuning, the students' work took first place in a contest sponsored by Young Playwrights, a nonprofit that fosters youth voice through playwrighting. The work of nine students was produced last month at Temple and reprised Wednesday night at Ben Franklin for a one-time performance especially for the students, with Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. in attendance.
The 40-minute work was stark and affecting, a series of loosely related scenes stitched together - characters interacting or reciting monologues, each new scene marked by beat-boxing. The drama dealt not just with school closings, but also with the budget cuts that have rocked the district in recent years.
"I've never seen a school so crazy. It's like a wild party every day!" a frustrated student tells another in one scene.
"I don't feel prepared for college," says another character. "At the beginning of the year, we had 800 students and one counselor."
In another scene, a teacher addresses the School Reform Commission, beseeching it for help.
"Something has to be done, people!" the teacher shouts in desperation. "I never thought I would see this type of behavior in a school environment."
Students are frustrated, the characters said, and they act out. There are few extracurricular activities to participate in. Art and music classes are hard to come by, but so are textbooks and paper. Bringing together students who used to be rivals sparked tensions.
The work began last winter, when Young Playwrights teaching artists paired with Lauren Murphy-Sands, a Ben Franklin English teacher who understands the district's churn herself. Murphy-Sands landed at Ben Franklin after other high schools she worked at - Audenried, Vaux, Communications Technology - closed or were converted to charters.
When Young Playwrights teaching artist Maryruth Stine began working with the Franklin students, she thought she'd spur their creativity with writing prompts about their connection to their school.
But she quickly discovered many felt no connection at all.
"That sense of community and that sense of identity didn't exist," Stine said. "And there was peer pressure: 'We gave up, and so should you.' They feel like the district doesn't care about them."
Once the teens began believing in the project, they realized their words were a powerful tool.
"When they created these pieces, you could see how real the struggle was for them, how in some ways it's almost as if they just accepted their reality," Murphy-Sands said. "This was their way to fight back against it."
The words deeply affected Niema Dunbar, a 37-year-old Temple theater student, who acted out the Ben Franklin playwrights' words. Dunbar has a daughter who is a recent graduate of Overbrook High School and a son who is a fifth grader at Overbrook Elementary.
Her daughter was a strong, active student, and now attends college, but she still missed out on many things that her peers from other districts had, Dunbar said. And her son's class size just swelled from 19 to 32, she said.
"Every year, things get taken away - school police, different programs," said Dunbar, who took on The Receiving Schools Project, she said, "to be a voice for these children, who are suffering."
For her, the students' work was a revelation.
"We hear about these big decisions, we see them on the news," Dunbar said. "As parents, we even go to the meetings. But we never listen to what the kids say, and we have to."
Listen to playwright Jacqueea Freeman, a bright Ben Franklin senior who longs to study languages.
"I had to stop taking Mandarin because we didn't have the money for it," Freeman said.
Listen to Wilson, who came to Philadelphia last year after years in the South and was taken aback by what he has seen.
"I've seen riots," Wilson said. "I've seen people get jumped. I've seen people fight cops. Some kids talk to teachers like they're nothing."
On Wednesday, Murphy-Sands was a little nervous about what the guest sitting about 10 rows back would think of the Receiving Schools Project.
After all, Glen Knapp, executive producing director of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, had declared the scenes important but "quite painful."
But the superintendent was wowed, he said after the performance.
"It was a frank and honest conversation about school closures and the impact it had on students," Hite said, adding that it was helpful for him to have a reminder of how his decisions affect students.
Things are improving at Ben Franklin this year, senior Tyquise Edgerson said. But students want more.
"Sometimes, half a class is students and teachers arguing," Edgerson said. "It's getting better, but it needs to be even better."