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Blog: Notes From the Field, part three

The next few installments of Notes From the Field will feature Q&A’s focused on the problems facing high school papers across the country, held with several experts in high school journalism, from state and national officials to press law experts. 

These conversations will give me a good sense of the issues plaguing high school journalism in America, allowing me to answer my guiding question: “What is the best way to increase the presence of high quality journalism in public schools?” Hopefully, the answer to that question will be by addressing one or several of the problems I find.

The first of these Q&A’s is with Keith Carlson, The Central Times’ advisor and President of the Illinois Journalism Education Association. Carlson is a certified journalism educator, and has worked at the state level for several years.

 

Q&A

Q: What do you think are the major problems facing Illinois student journalists and publications?

A: couple of things popped into my head. One of the big problems in Illinois is that we passed a law several years ago, a New Voices Law. I want to say that it was 2016 that we got that passed, and as [IJEA] President it’s been shocking to me how many public schools in the state are operating without an awareness that the law exists, with the censorship and the things that are happening. There are indications that school administrators have not been properly versed [in the law]. So one problem that could be solved is educating secondary public school administrators in the state of Illinois about the law so that they can operate in compliance with the law and support scholastic journalism programs and work as a partnership and cooperation with each other. Because one of the things that I think some administrators come to understand when they know about the law is that they actually have some protection: the mistakes that are made that violate the law are the responsibility and the ownership of the students and the publication that made the mistake. The principal is not legally culpable in that situation. Then, consequently, if a principal decides to prior review a paper and censor a paper, they take over the ownership of anything that goes wrong. So it’s this weird thing where I think there are administrators who don’t quite understand that it’s in their best interest to give students free speech rights, and also be in compliance with the law. So I’m feeling like the law is not being taken seriously. In some states, It’s actually just flat out dismissed with knowledge of its existence. Somewhere out west the people basically just said, “Yeah, we know about the law, we don’t care.” So that’s been interesting to talk on a national level with other state leaders about what problems they’re encountering. So censorship is still a big thing. I’m looking at the SPLC’s [Student Press Law Center’s] website right now and there’s a huge censorship alert message that a lawsuit alleges a California principal bullied and retaliated against a student newspaper. California has been one of the first and most openly progressive with student speech rights and has one of the most robust systems of scholastic journalism. So it just shows you that it can happen anywhere at any time. And the entire west coast is all protected by New Voices laws, but it’s still happening. So that’s a challenge. 

Protecting advisors and supporting advisors is a challenge. Last year, when I was at a state conference, and I found out about a paper in the south suburbs where the adviser was really controlling the kids and censoring the kids. That’s kind of advisor control. There’s no formal training process [for advisors]. You can be any teacher in your building and selected by your principal or whatever to be in charge of the paper or be asked to take that on. And there’s a history of that. And it’s not always a bad thing. My predecessor, Mrs. Kane, she had no formal training in journalism before she was an English teacher. But she became a nationally known guru at Scholastic journalism because she took advantage of all the national offerings and opportunities and trainings and conferences and retreats and all these things. So she became an expert because she became passionate. I have formal training in journalism, but I’ve also gone to conferences and taken  advantage [of those opportunities]. 

A problem too is just identifying who are the people running the newspapers in Illinois, what schools have papers and which ones don’t and then, “is your paper printed or online? Is it an eight-and-a-half by 11 sheet of paper taped up in the bathroom stall?” There’s a disparity there. The big black hole is CPS [Chicago Public Schools], it’s very hard to know which schools, like Walter Payton prep and Lane Tech and some of those are going to have programs, but most schools are not so we’re not even giving kids equal opportunity to explore their First Amendment rights in this way because we don’t consistently have papers. Unfortunately, there’s costs associated with it, too. 

So those are kind of the things that jumped out at me as big problems. The lack of awareness of the state law and defiance of proper application of the law, identifying which schools have programs and don’t and then how are we training and supporting advisors to train and support kids to do journalism the way that we hope it would be done. 

I guess if I had to pick another thing, the statewide and probably a national push to get kids to take AP classes and those types of things is shoving kids out of journalism programs, and numbers are going down. We’re basically establishing priorities as academic systems that are pulling kids away from journalism. I can tell you that there is a groundswell and a movement happening to get an AP journalism class. It’s in the works. It’s being written. I think that will change a lot of things because if this could be an AP program that’s going to entice kids to take it. I hate that that’s the carrot to motivate but we know that that will work. And then what’s happening now, a lot of journalism programs are going from an English or communications department to a CTE [Career and Technical Education] department, because students have CTE requirements to graduate and a lot of high academic achieving kids, they’re often some of the ones that don’t have the CTE credit because they, don’t want to take woodworking or whatever, right? So the problem here and why we haven’t considered it at Central is there’s a whole separate certification to be a CTE teacher, and you’re also infringing on the CTE department, and they don’t want my stuff to be in their department and pulling kids away from their classes. 

So those are the big things right now that I can say.

Q: In Illinois, there are a lot of “legacy papers,” in a way; CT have a pretty long history of being a very good newspaper and then there’s UHigh Midway and Stevenson and others like that.In your experience how often are there new programs that come out of nowhere and then reach the levels of some of those like older ones? 

A: There are a lot of powerhouse programs. I think there are powerhouse states, Missouri, California, Kansas, there are several on the east coast, the DC area, Virginia and states like that. So there are definitely places where everybody recognizes. I’m really proud that our publication is usually on that list. It’s that Pacemaker 100 list, and obviously I inherited half of [CT’s awards], which had already been done before I took over so I was really lucky. And then the stress for me was not being the one to lose that status. It’s stressful to maintain, because it was such a high bar. But I do think, to your question, there are schools that will wane. I don’t mean to be specific and throw shade but Downers Grove North was always a huge powerhouse program. They’ve kind of trailed off, their advisor stepped down and they haven’t replaced her with somebody of her level. The former advisor at downers North was one of the most formidable journalism advisors in the state, in the country. But she stepped down largely because she was done with fighting with her district administration over protecting her kids rights to do things. But oddly enough, one of the rising stars in Illinois has been Downers Grove South which never had much of anything, and now they’re super competitive. I was looking at the Online Pacemaker nominations on NSPA the other day because I hadn’t realized that the nominations came out. West Chicago got nominated. I’ve never seen that before. It’s brand new, and I haven’t looked at their site yet. I’m really excited to see a school like that get an online nomination. They would not have the resources to print a paper physically, but I think the national organizations are always looking to throw accolades to encourage programs to keep going. Metea Valley is one of the ones that pops into my head. That was obviously not in existence at one point, but they ramped up fast. It’s very hard to predict. But I think at the end of the day, a lot of the engine of whether a program is either maintaining a legacy of quality or able to create one out of seemingly nowhere is really about the training and understanding of the laws and free speech of the adviser that gets the publication. And then it’s the advisor’s job to work with the school administration to make that a partnership instead of an adversarial relationship. 

Q: We at Central have English Two Journalism already, and Honors English Two Journalism, and not every school really has that. Is there a pattern of greater success with the schools that have those programs?

A: I think so. I think that’s a good question. I think if a school has what we call a J1 [journalism one] class, you are more likely to be able to recruit and support a robust publication. I have friends in other states who only teach journalism classes all day long, because they have their newspaper’s sports department in its own class period. They’ll teach two J1 classes and three sections of newspaper broken into departments or whatever. Yearbook, especially yearbook, gets several classes. I’ve never had more than one section of Central Times, and that’s fine. But I have taught Central Times with 27 people in it before and now it’s 14 people. That is due to some of the problems that I mentioned before, but I do think when you have that J1 experience it’s a natural recruitment tool. Because you’re exposing kids and you’re also training kids. Central Times used to require that to get on staff, you had to have taken journalism. And that was a requirement. I waived that requirement years ago, for survival reasons: We weren’t keeping the attention of the journalism students because it was mostly honors kids, and they couldn’t fit this into their schedule, and there was no enticement of a weighted credit or things like that. 

Very rarely are you going to find a program that’s an extracurricular only that is going to be at the level of any program that has some sort of curriculum, even if it’s just a production class [where students make the newspaper] and not the training level [like a J1 class]. But as I was saying earlier, I got rid of the requirement here because we just couldn’t sustain membership and interest from the kids who signed up for journalism class. Now that journalism is its own official track of sophomore English — as opposed to like more of an elective type thing — we do have solid numbers. We’ve been running, between regular and honors, five sections of journalism for several years. I don’t know what next year’s numbers are yet, but it’s not translating to yearbook and newspaper staff in very high numbers for all those other reasons. So yeah, I think I think when you have a training class a J1, you’re in better shape to be a robust program for sure.

Q: Are there any efforts at getting more of those classes into schools or is it a district by district thing?

A: I think it’s district by district. I talk to parents at conferences about this. A lot of parents are skeptical about letting their kids take journalism as opposed to quote-unquote “regular” English, and as somebody who is an English guy, I love to read, I love literature, I love literary analysis. I love all those things. I just feel like journalism is, I’ve kind of referred to it as 21st century English. It is media literacy skills. It’s a practical business application of writing. It’s direct audience understanding of writing. When you’re writing papers in a literature class, your audience is always your teacher, and you’re trying to sound smart. So I feel like what we do in a journalism focus of English is way more applicable to life skills in different career fields outside of that, whereas the traditional model of an English class is basically to train everybody to be literature majors in college, but how many are going to, right? I always wonder if we’re not selling journalism well enough to convince other school districts that they should have it. If we designed more of a 21st century English class, I think it would look more like journalism than what we’re doing now. 

Q: I would imagine there’s probably something to do with resources too, right?

A: Oh, sure. But I mean, honestly, if you’re going to publish, you just need some computers and the internet. I’m not saying it’s the cheapest thing in the world. But you know, we’re paying for kind of a top level version of School Newspapers Online with some of the bells and whistles, and it’s under $1,000 total for a year to do that. So it’s not impossible, and you can do that on a school issued Chromebook. The cost is more manageable than it used to be. It’s not impossible, but even if you didn’t publish like that, I think you could still teach journalism.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: I would encourage you to look at the SPLC website, because I think a lot of the problems that exist are documented there. Obviously more with regards to New Voices Laws and First Amendment things, but that’s a great way to see where the struggle is right now and what people are dealing with. A lot of times it’s a butting of heads of school administration and the community and student journalists. How much conflict there is depends a lot on the level of training and support that the advisors get because there are plenty who are not going to put up any resistance to being told to do something. They don’t necessarily even know it. They don’t understand what they’re able to do legally or not, so you kind of do whatever you’re told to do, because you’re an employee and you don’t want to be in trouble with your employer. So you do what you’re told, and I think districts like advisors without a lot of training and a lot of support because they’re less likely to cause conflict. They don’t know as much and, no offense to them, but I think the more you know, the easier it is to understand when something’s not right. 

 

Conclusions

After my conversation with Carlson, two things seem clear: advisors are important to the success of publications, as are laws protecting student journalists’ speech rights. Future interviews will hopefully give me a better idea for how to support advisors or New Voices Laws through action, but it seems like one of these two pathways to improving the quality of student journalism will likely be the one I take. 

 

A brief schedule update

In my first blog post I outlined a rather strict schedule for when new posts come out and… I have not adhered to it at all. For the next few weeks especially, there will be no strict schedule: new Q&A posts will come out as they are finished, since there isn’t really a point in delaying a post until long after an interview is complete.

I’ll be posting on my X account (@jpfeifferCT) whenever new issues come out, so follow me there to make sure you see new posts when they come out.

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About the Contributor
Jake Pfeiffer
Jake Pfeiffer, Editor-in-Chief
Jake Pfeiffer is a senior, entering his third year on the Central Times staff, this time as Editor-in-Chief. Jake joined CT as a sophomore because he wanted to write news, but since then he has grown to love just about every element of journalism. While it is rare to see Jake anywhere other than the CT office, occasionally you can find him captaining Central’s debate team, watching baseball, listening to a seemingly endless amount of podcasts or drowning in college applications.
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