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Feature                                                       Pages 34-39

 

Scholastic Journalism:

Skills for the 21st Century
 

Superintendents champion their student publications for developing the habits of mind needed in a competitive global marketplace

BY MARY L. STAPP

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Pity the poor superintendent forced to engage with members of the rabid press on a regular basis, those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” as Spiro Agnew famously described them. When the press is composed of the very students in your school district, it can really rankle.

In a remarkable twist, some school system leaders today actually encourage students in their schools to fire away with their questioning, to examine proposed and existing policies, to look into the activities of their school boards, and to survey students on controversial topics. Sometimes the published stories that result are not exactly flattering. One student journalist in Indiana interviewed parents of a student who died after inhaling computer duster to get high, something teens refer to as “huffing.” An online story by a student journalist in Kansas reported on a school board president who was meddling with decisions by a varsity sports coach.

The best school newspapers today tackle the most controversial issues in their communities: gay teens, cheating scandals, drug use, obesity and race.

Academic Merits
It takes a courageous superintendent, therefore, to make room in the budget for the study and practice of journalism at the secondary level. An educator who champions freedom of speech may take some heat for what the teen journalists produce in their student newspapers, news magazines and online publications.

Nevertheless, some school leaders swear by journalism education as something that fuels academic growth, fosters community understanding and leads to tangible skills development. Students who research contemporary issues, write journalistic copy and produce news for an audience of peers are learning an array of essentials in the process.

First, journalism addresses the new emphasis on nonfiction text in the Common Core State Standards.

Second, students who work on high school newspapers and yearbooks earn better grades in high school, achieve higher scores on the ACT and perform better than nonjournalist peers as college freshmen, according to a 2008 study by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation. For the study, Jack Dvorak, then a professor at Indiana University’s School of Journalism, analyzed ACT testing data of 31,000 high school juniors and seniors.

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The report concludes that the 20 percent who had some journalism involvement during high school scored higher than the other 80 percent. According to Dvorak, this shows “conclusively that high school journalism experience translates into better college performance in several key areas, such as the ability to express oneself clearly and reason incisively.”

Finally, these students can make college admissions officers sit up and take note. At Bucknell University, the vice president for enrollment management, Bill Conley, says his admissions staff find dedicated journalism students have notable qualities, which he lists as “willingness to share their work in a public place,” “familiarity with deadlines and teamwork,” “curiosity” and “competency in writing or other expressions.”

An applicant with a true journalism resume, Conley wrote in an e-mail, “will gain some very important weight on the admissions scale.”

Identifiable Attributes
Several superintendents with reputations for supporting the student press ticked off a long list of gains they see in students who take part in such programs.

“Responsibility, time management,” answered Thomas Minshew, superintendent of the Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, Calif., and himself a former contributor to student publications in the district he now oversees.

“Organizational skills, writing skills, how to [design] things on a page,” says James Dawson, superintendent of the North Lamar Independent School District in Paris, Texas, a district with a distinguished journalism program, winning top ratings for feature writing and photography in highly competitive statewide tournaments.

Fairness, integrity, “to be responsive,” says Jeff Butts, superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, Ind. “Our journalism students have to report stories honestly and with balance, using the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.”

“Leadership,” declares Mike Johnson, superintendent in Bexley, Ohio, adding that part of his district’s mission is to provide an education that pursues truth. “Being on the newspaper has kids thinking and has them clarifying their thinking.”

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Supportive Policy

The most successful scholastic journalism programs teach duty, honor and professional responsibility. They are a key component of civic education in a democratic society. Teachers and students say there are a host of things superintendents and principals can do to keep journalism programs working toward such lofty goals. Money and equipment are obvious needs, but perhaps the biggest obstacle is trust.

“To be honest,” says Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash., “a lot of times when districts are trying to censor, it is because of fear.” As part of her graduate work, Enfield studied high school journalism’s capacity to develop democratic character in students. See related story.

READ MORE:

 My Defense of Scholastic Journalism: The Cost of 'Quiet Dissatisfaction'
When Enfield was interim superintendent of Seattle Public Schools in 2011-12, she helped to prevent adoption of a school district policy that would have allowed administrators to review all content before the student newspaper went to print. This would have reversed a decades-old policy in Seattle granting students the final say over what does and does not go into their publications. The problem with prior review is that it often leads to prior restraint, as well as students’ own self-censorship.

While seven states have passed student press rights legislation that forbids this practice, Washington state is not among them. Still, Enfield recognized that principals barring student publications from running material they considered “disruptive” or “inappropriate” ran counter to established education values. A year later, she was honored as Administrator of the Year by the Journalism Education Association, the country’s largest scholastic journalism organization. (Enfield is only the second superintendent to receive the award in its 17-year history.)

Common Fears
If the prospect of student journalists probing controversial subjects is scary from the point of view of a school leader, imagine how it feels for a 16-year-old to pursue a story on the issue of the day by questioning a bunch of adults about how they view the situation. And then to write the story on deadline (or combine video clips or assemble the right guests for the radio show), submit it to the student editor for review and then use the latest technology for presentation. After distribution, how would you handle critical feedback? Would you be willing to monitor online comments, and then be ready to start the process all over again for the next issue?

The complexity of the task facing student journalists is daunting. “Sometimes I try to help them out and give them better questions to ask because I know they are afraid. They are shy,” says Minshew, whose district in Daly City, Calif., has five high schools, four of which have student newspapers. “But I tell them, ‘Keep asking the questions.’”

At Terra Nova High School in Pacifica, Calif., from which Minshew graduated in 1976, students put out an issue of the newspaper every three weeks, 13 times over the year. The journalism teacher there today, Alyssa Jenkins, says the superintendent offers guidance and leadership, particularly in regard to financial support.

When school district budget cuts threatened her journalism course, Jenkins says Minshew found funding through California’s Regional Occupational Program, a 40-year-old statewide initiative that provides aid for specialty classes, such as criminal justice or auto repair. The superintendent was able to fund a Journalism 1 technical writing class and a Journalism 2 yearbook class at Terra Nova High. The students must sell advertisements to local vendors and hold fundraisers to pay for printing.

Butts, superintendent of the 16,000-student Wayne Township schools in Indiana, says it cost $50,000 to install a new media studio at Ben Davis High School, home of an award-winning FM radio and television station. That was a one-time expenditure, but the district also budgets about $15,000 annually for maintenance and supplies. Students operate WBDG, which airs radio programming 24/7 with the help of computer automation.

Jon Easter, the radio broadcasting teacher and station manager, says students staff the station from 7:30 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. on school days in addition to providing remote broadcasts of after-school sports contests and community events. He says the superintendent “has created an atmosphere where our students flourish and thrive.”

A Ben Davis graduate himself, Easter says in an e-mail, “We have an extremely supportive administration and community that have given us the possibility to have a state-of the-art radio program providing a place for students to not only learn about radio but actually to practice it in a facility that’s on par with what they will see in college or in the industry.”

Competitive Spirit
This fully loaded, high-tech journalism program at Ben Davis differs from one in Paris, a rural town in eastern Texas. Cheryl LaRue, publications adviser at North Lamar High School, says her journalism operation owns four cameras with telephoto lenses, a dedicated laptop for the editor in chief, eight desktop computers, eight netbooks, a WiFi signal and server storage. “I also have four classes that get the privilege of handling all these goodies [to] explore their talents,” she says.

LaRue says the support of Dawson, the superintendent, fuels her fire and that of her students. In Texas, the University Interscholastic League sponsors statewide sports and academic competitions, including four journalism writing competitions at the high school level for news, features, editorial/opinions and headline writing.

The district provides a school bus or van to transport LaRue and student competitors out of town nearly every Saturday. They also get lunch money, and faculty advisers are paid a stipend that increases as the team advances through the competition.

“When I became adviser, Mr. Dawson encouraged me to pursue UIL participation, which had not been competitive in journalism,” LaRue says. “We have had students advance to regionals, and I want a state champ as well one day.”

In Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, Johnson has been superintendent since 2001, long enough to see his visions realized. The district received an “Excellent” rating from the Ohio Department of Education, while the Ohio Scholastic Media Association named Bexley High’s newspaper, The Torch, one of two top papers in the state.

Johnson, an educator for 39 years, raves about The Torch. “It is one of the most remarkable journalism programs that I have been personally involved with during my career. The leadership coming from our students, year after year, is extraordinary,” he says.

Johnson meets with student editors at the beginning of every school year. He likes to tell them about a principal who was in the running to lead Bexley High School who withdrew his name from consideration after seeing two of the most recent issues of The Torch, one of which contained a spread of articles relating to gay marriage. Johnson laughs as he recounts how well it all worked out.

Torch adviser Julie Horger says she emphasizes to her students that they should not take such support for granted. The superintendent is entrusting them with great responsibility, she says. “As a result, they take what they do very seriously.”

Open Arms
Perhaps that is where the ultimate proof resides. Teenager Sarah Darby put together a 45-page portfolio and was named the 2012 High School Journalist of the Year in Kansas, a state with an extremely active student press and legislation that protects them. She then was named runner-up for National High School Journalist of the Year, sponsored by the Journalism Education Association. She was editor in chief of her school paper at Mill Valley High School in Shawnee, Kan., and now studies journalism at University of Missouri.

She recalls a story she wrote for the high school newspaper, JagWire, about a school board member who seemed to be politicizing teachers’ jobs. She had to go to the police station to obtain a report that had been filed and then had to encourage some teachers to speak on the record about dicey situations involving the board member. Although Darby makes clear the most influential and staunchest supporter of her work was her adviser, Kathy Habiger, she says she was surprised and relieved to be thanked by Superintendent Doug Sumner, of De Soto Unified School District 232, for her quality reporting.

“The superintendent encouraged me to print the truth and to be brave in that situation, and that was really encouraging,” Darby says. “I was thankful that he expressed his support. So many times, especially in my senior year, I felt he was risking a lot in standing up for us to print things that so many people didn’t like.”

Rheina Agosa looks at well-established student publications, such as Mill Valley’s newspaper, and she wants that experience. She attends a small high school in Seattle, Wash., where 82 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. For her senior project at Health Sciences and Human Services High School, Agosa is starting a newspaper. It’s called The Epiphany because she came up with the idea while sitting in church. She met Enfield, the district superintendent, during a visit to Agosa’s school.

“I was a little intimidated and reluctant, but as soon as I told her about my senior project, she welcomed me with open arms. She gave me her e-mail address, and we set up a meeting at her office,” says Agosa, who explains the unusual makeup of her school contributes to a lack of communication: “In the end, I felt that when my high school split into three small schools, we lost something crucial — the school newspaper. I wanted a structured setting for students at my school to voice their opinion other than on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, everyone needs to do a few tweets every now and then, but the opportunity of becoming a high school journalist can open so many opportunities for you.”

Mary Stapp is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a board member of the Student Law Press Center. E-mail: marystapp@aol.com


Additional Resources

Support structures for high school journalism programs help students maintain high standards and adhere to responsible practices. Several national organizations provide the guidance students and their advisers seek.
 
•  Columbia Scholastic Press Association is affiliated with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. It hosts an annual convention on campus that serves to inspire high school journalists and runs contests and critiques for yearbooks, newspapers, online news sites and magazines.

•  Dow Jones News Fund considers journalism education for students and support of educators its top emphasis. The foundation, supported by Dow Jones, offers a free quarterly newspaper, Adviser Update, for journalism teachers and media advisers.

•  Journalism Education Association is the largest U.S. organization for scholastic journalism. It sponsors conventions that inspire students, hosts a listserv providing just-in-time help for educators and publication advisers, and treats students as professionals. JEA offers two levels of national certification for teaching high school journalism.

•  National Scholastic Press Association is a nonprofit membership organization that encourages best practices for student media. NSPA co-hosts national conventions with JEA, awards scholarships and provides critiques. Its annual contests recognize students and set national standards.

•  Quill and Scroll may not sound like a 21st-century resource, but this international honorary society offers scholarships, evaluations and contests, as well as tips for student bloggers.

•  Student Press Law Center advocates First Amendment rights of student journalists. This nonprofit organization educates students and their advisers on such legal issues as copyright and fair use, libel and privacy, freedom of information, censorship, and cyber law.

— MARY STAPP



 

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