You won’t often hear the scribbling of interview answers in notepads, see the curious eyes of student reporters looking for stories, or feel the tension of deadlines around high schools in Brooklyn. The number of student-run school newspapers is low, and, according to some, it keeps going down.
“My generation consumes a lot of news on the internet. On Instagram, Shapchat, all of those things,” says Tahlya Valcourt, the 17-year-old Editor-in-Chief of her school’s newspaper, the Claw Weekly of the City College Academy of Arts (CCAA). “Especially if it’s coming from a pop-culture kind of thing, I don’t immediately believe it, but a lot of people do. Our brains are malleable and we believe things more easily.”
This disconnect from traditional news among today’s teenagers is one of the reasons why Valcourt’s English teacher, Dennis Mihalsky, turned his classroom into a newsroom. He noticed that his students didn’t know the difference between fact and opinion and wanted to teach them using the classic journalism rule of “show don’t tell.” He was soon blown away by the positive results of the newspaper project.
“When we first started, they would just google a story that was already written and make their own version of it. But I was happy that they were even just reading the news,” said Mihalsky. “Then I started to direct them to make their own stories. They started doing more research, looking into organizations, reading press releases. They were interacting with the news in a way they weren’t on their own.”
Mihalsky noticed an abundance of positive changes among his students, things that will help them in after-school life. They learned how to work with deadlines (grades didn’t feel important, finishing the story on time did), researched topics until they got all their facts straight, worked together as a team, and took full ownership of the class. Some students even improved their English language skills and passed tests they failed before.
Anthony Ramil has been the advisor of The Brooklyn Latin School’s paper The Latineer—which recently
transitioned to online-only to give more students a voice—for four years. He sees similar academic and social changes in his students.
“I think the biggest change in terms of academic ability is how they learn to write in different formats for different purposes,” he wrote in an email.
The students expanded their writing skills beyond academic essays and opinion pieces, and developed better communication skills in a co-working environment through interviewing adults and peers.
“The work it takes to manage a school newspaper definitely has them refine their organizational and time management skills,” Ramil wrote.
The importance of scholastic journalism doesn’t end in the classroom, according to Mihalsky, it is vital for the survival of journalism. Children are the future, and if they aren’t taught to care about local news, future newsrooms will suffer.
“We’re pushing young people to read newspapers, because the newspaper industry is dying out,” said Valcourt. “We want to make other young people understand the power of words, even if it is online.”
Even though the promising qualities of school newspapers are undeniable, there are hardly any schools that offer journalism classes or have a school newspaper in the Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and East Williamsburg area. We called around, and of the 18 high schools that were able to answer our questions, only three have a student-run newspaper, one has a journalism class, and two have a principal-run newsletter with some form of student involvement.
One of these papers, a blog called the Uncommon Times, was created a year ago by Jeffrey Wolfenden, a P.E. and World History teacher at Uncommon Charter High School. He did not expect the numbers to be this low, but he isn’t surprised either.
“I suspect that it has something to do with the high teacher turn-over. The teacher who might have plans for a paper, might not be around the following year,” Wolfenden said. “Besides, many teachers are overworked. And when the administration focuses on test scores, extra curricular activities are sometimes shoved down on the totem pole.”
Wolfenden started the blog because he wanted kids to have a voice and showcase themselves. The school administration was supportive and the project was so popular, that now, in its second year, there is a second class available and 35 kids have signed up.
After Mihalsky realized how great the paper was for his students, he started looking into the scholastic journalism world and happened upon a 2013 article by the New York Times. The reported numbers paint a bleak picture. The Department of Education (DOE) had done an “informal survey” of high schools in the city and found that only one in eight have a student-run newspaper or journalism class—which reflects what we see in Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and East Williamsburg today.
The one-in-eight statistic is the most recent data available on student journalism, but Mark Goodman, a professor in scholastic journalism at Kent State University whose 2011 study was also referenced in the NYT article, wrote in an email that he, too, assumes that today’s picture looks similar to the one eight years ago.
“My speculation is that the numbers [of print papers] may have gone down slightly, but there are definitely more online media outlets today than in the past,” he wrote.
Goodman’s study found that, nationally, two-thirds of high schools have newspapers. However, this number is often much lower in urban environments, where schools have less resources for things like newspapers, art classes, and musical instruments.
Jessica Siegel, who spearheaded Baruch College’s NYC High School Journalism Conference in 2003, explained why there are less resources available for extracurriculars.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Siegel worked as a teacher at a large high school. Big schools had choruses, bands, journalism programs, and debate teams. Then, the notion arose that big schools were bad, because of high drop-out rates and the lack of intimacy between students and teachers. Under Bloomberg, there was a push in 2002 to turn big, comprehensive high schools into small schools.
The concept sounds good, but in reality, oftentimes small schools have small teams of teachers, so there is less room for electives and extracurriculars. Because of the heightened emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests of the past decade, it is hard for teachers to integrate non-test-related things, like creative writing or news literacy, into their classes. Those things would be seen as a distraction.
Mihalsky was disappointed by the low number of school newspapers in the city, so he recently started a non-profit to promote scholastic journalism, called Students Disrupting, which is now in its fundraising phase. He wants to make sure more schools get on board by helping them create and sustain independently-run school newspapers.
For Valcourt, the best thing about the presence of the paper, is the heightened sense of involvement among her fellow students and accountability among faculty. “As students, we now have an opportunity to speak up about what happens at our school and in our community,” she said. “The administration knows that if we’re not heard or if they’re doing things that make us feel uncomfortable, it will end up in the paper.”
Writing critically and freely about their observations, is vital for students who run a newspaper. However, not all school newspapers get the same level of freedom to write as Valcourt’s team does. Due to murky legislation surrounding student’s freedom of speech, it is possible in many states for school administrators to censor their students’ news.
In 1983, the principal of a school in Missouri removed two articles from the school newspaper—one about divorce, another about teen pregnancy. The students believed that their First Amendment rights had been violated, so they sued the school. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which sided with the school. In 1988, they ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that censorship is allowed if it is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
The clarity of this ruling comes with its own set of question marks, because one person’s pedagogical concerns might be the opposite of someone else’s. If a principal doesn’t like an article, they have the right to censor it, giving high school papers less First Amendment protection than publications outside of school walls.
The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) was founded in 1974 to offer legal advice and information to high school and college students and their advisors exercising their First Amendment right.
Mike Hiestand, one of SPLC’s legal representatives, says that student journalists pretty much have the same legal issues as any commercial journalist, including copyright, libel, and getting access to records and meetings. However, the calls they get most frequently are about censorship. “That’s where we differ from commercial media, who don’t have to deal with that often,” he said.
Hiestand continues: “A lot of people think that the reason students are censored is because they write about sex, drugs, and rock-’n-roll, but that’s really not it. You can kind of guarantee that censorship is going to be triggered by ‘how bad is this going to make the school look?’”
To make sure censorship can no longer happen, grassroots movement New Voices is lobbying to get new legislation in place to give student journalists the same First Amendment rights as traditional journalists. There are currently New Voices laws in 14 states.
“Free speech protects everybody,” said Michael Simons, New York’s New Voices representative, President of the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisors Association, and high school yearbook advisor. When, for instance, conservatives tell him that they’re afraid that free speech will just enable students to write about LGBTQ+ communities and other “left” things, Simons tells them that, on the other end of the spectrum, censorship gives liberal principles the power to pull stories about their school’s hunting club. It’s non-partisan.
In New York, New Voices introduced the “Student Journalism Free Speech Act,” which consists of rules and guidelines to protect all student speech, “unless it’s libelous, an invasion of privacy, would create or incite clear and present danger or a material and substantial disruption to the school day.” It is still unclear when the bill will be up for vote.
Local Assemblywoman Maritza Davila, Representing the 53rd Assembly District said it’s imperative for youth to be interested in journalism as a way to express themselves freely in an ethical way.
“I support [the] Student Journalism Free Speech Act as it gives students the opportunity to truthfully speak about the important topics and subjects that adhere to the school as a means for student and faculty engagement,” she told Bushwick Daily.
According to Simons, it is important that students have the ability to write about things they deal with on a daily basis, “Everything from mental health and vaping, to why the bathrooms were locked down and concussions in high school sports—there’s nobody better equipped to tell their stories than students themselves.”
All images courtesy of CCAA.
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