Divining retaliation from a shrinking budget

With duct taped mouths and signs sporting slogans such as ”No Newspaper, No Voice,” students at Fremont High School protested the school’s decision to cancel the journalism class for the 2010-2011 school year.

Administrators at the Sunnyvale, Calif., school said they could not justify offering the class that produces the Phoenix during a budget crunch, but Editor Vered Hazanchuk and other students suspect there might be other reasons the school cut the class.

The students at Fremont High are not alone; a number of schools across the country have chosen to cancel journalism classes, blaming the massive state budget shortfalls of the last few years.

But journalism education advocates such as Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, fear that some administrators might use a shrinking budget as an opportunity to cut a program they never liked in the first place.

”The budget is what it is. You can’t get water out of a stone,” Hiestand said. ”We saw a number of schools where that was the expressed reason given. But it seemed to happen a lot more at schools where there had been some tension between student media and administration than it did at other schools.”

Hiestand said it is often difficult to tell whether administrators are cutting a program truly for budgetary reasons or if funding cuts may be a subtle form of retaliation.

”Censorship can be much more subtle than pulling papers from the rack,” he said. It could also be eliminating an adviser’s position or cutting the budget in a significant way that prevents the publication from covering the news.

Sarah Nichols, the Journalism Education Association state director for northern California, said students and advisers who are fighting cuts because of retaliation should use people who have been through similar situations as a resource. Organizations like JEA can help make those connections quickly, she said.

”If a program cut seems intentional, students need to spring into action,” Nichols said.

Hiestand said the staff should demonstrate the unfairness of the cuts to the journalism program to administrators, school board members and the public.

When Fremont High administrators cited the budget and low class enrollment numbers, Hazanchuk was suspicious and requested the enrollment figures for the school’s other classes.

”The main reason we’ve been told the class has been canceled is enrollment numbers, so we wanted to know where the other classes stood,” she said.

The journalism class originally had 17 students signed up for the 2010-2011 school year, Hazanchuk said. They found that other electives, such as Advanced Placement music theory with 17 students and a ceramics class with 12 students, also suffered low enrollment but were kept on the schedule.

An article in the June issue of the Phoenix included those numbers and an interview with a student who said he was not allowed to sign up for the class before it had been officially canceled. Another student told the newspaper he had been discouraged from taking the class the previous year.

Polly Bove, superintendent of the Fremont Union High School District, said the school district has been supportive of the newspaper but the class has struggled with low enrollment for four years. She said she hopes temporarily offering the newspaper as an after-school club will bring renewed interest from students.

”We kept trying to build the program this way and obviously this approach isn’t working, so we’re going to try a different approach,” Bove said. ”We’re determined to have a great journalism program and a great newspaper.”

Students at Arcata High School in California went to their school board to protest cuts to their journalism program.

Arcata High’s Pepperbox staff, too, was told budget cuts meant the school could not afford to offer their class with its low enrollment, Editor-in-Chief Cedar Lay said. The class had 9 students signed up for the 2010-2011 school year — the same as the previous year — and another 10 agreed to take the class after it was canceled, he said.

Hiestand said appealing to school board members can be particularly effective because they are usually elected officials and might be more easily swayed.

But Lay said that when students took their case to the school board of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, administrators told the board that a decision to cut the class had not been made. That is not what students had been told, he said.

”My co-editor-in-chief, among four or five other people, had already been called into the counselors’ office and been told to pick another course because it had been dropped,” he said.

Lay said the Pepperbox had printed some stories about the high turnover in administrative positions and other issues last year that did not reflect well on the school.

”We had been writing a lot of stuff lately that they weren’t so happy with, but you know, it’s kind of the harsh truth,” Lay said. ”So I think the administration had gotten almost a little afraid of it.”

Arcata High Principal Lisa Gray did not return calls for comment.

Hiestand said public attention can also change the minds of administrators.

”Public pressure is typically one of the more effective things — just showing that this isn’t fair,” he said.

At Fremont High, more than 80 students, parents and Phoenix alumni participated in the silent protest of the school’s decision to cancel the journalism class, Hazanchuk said. The protestors marched to the principal’s office to deliver a letter in support of reinstating the class. That protest was featured on KGO-TV in San Francisco.

At Arcata High, Lay and other Pepperbox staffers wrote letters to the local newspapers to gain public support for the journalism program. Students who were not involved in the newspaper also offered their support, he said.

”We had one girl who’s never taken the class before, but she came up to us and offered to come to the board meeting and speak with us just because it’s been so beneficial to her,” Lay said.

Hiestand said that when a program has been cut for retaliation, students’ final tool is the law, especially in states such as California with student free expression laws. In addition to demonstrating the unfairness of the cuts to the journalism program, evidence such as e-mails where administrators have complained about a story or instances when the principal has come into the newsroom to criticize the staff would help build a case for a lawsuit against retaliation, he said.

But sometimes, the funding cuts can only be attributed to shrinking school budgets and declining enrollment.

The number of high school journalism classes offered in California has been on a steady decline over the past decade, according to the California Department of Education. In the 2008-2009 school year, there were 171 fewer schools offering journalism courses than a decade earlier, a drop of 14.8 percent. The number of students taking journalism classes dropped 20.9 percent from 37,041 to 29,301 in that time period.

Nichols said cutting programs has become even more common recently, as the state tries to cope with the budget shortfall.

”In the past, administrators could protect smaller classes if they wanted to, but from their point of view, it’s just not realistic now to allow a class with smaller enrollment,” Nichols said. ”In so many cases, it’s not that fewer students are interested, it’s that there are so many competing factors.”

Students are often forced to choose between journalism and Advanced Placement classes, which counselors and parents push because they can help save time and money in college, she said.

Nichols is an adviser at Whitney High School in Rocklin, Calif., where she also is facing cuts to the journalism program. She said students and advisers who find their program in jeopardy need to be flexible and creative.

”To be proactive, I’ve gone to the principal and counselors to offer creative scheduling solutions, and I’ve offered multiple concessions in order to make the journalism classes possible,” she said. ”We’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep the classes going.”

Hiestand said if the school must cut funding to student media, students have a lot more options than they used to.

”All you need is a computer with an Internet connection and you’re able to turn out a pretty darn good looking piece of work, if you invest some time into it,” he said. ”If there was a time to have budget cuts, I guess now is better than 15 or 20 years ago.”

Online publishing has provided a glimmer of hope for the staff of The Caledonian at North Eugene High School in Oregon.

The staff has struggled as an after-school club after budget cuts brought the end of journalism classes at the school three years ago. The staff — once numbering between 20 and 30 — dwindled to two students and managed to produce just three issues of the newspaper two years ago.

Adviser Aaron Thomas pushed the staff last year to go online and hopefully, in the process, get more students excited about journalism.

The staff ended the school year with seven students — more than a threefold increase over the previous year.

”It’s not 20 or 30 by any means, but it was a heck of an improvement from last year,” Thomas said.

While he is excited about the opportunities of The Caledonian going online, Thomas calls the after-school program a ”mixed bag.”

It has brought more students with a variety of interests, including one Thomas calls a ”techy student,” who built their website.

”[Publishing online] opens up whole new avenues,” he said. ”Video interviews, audio commentary, interactive polls.”

The students at The Caledonian have to think a lot more about how to reach their audience, because there is much more competition for an audience’s attention online, he said.

But the after-school program does not come without challenges. Thomas said not having a class means he does not have as much time to teach the ”craft of writing an article” or have a lesson about libel until something potentially libelous comes up.

”If I’m going to teach journalism, I want to be able to teach journalism,” he said. The two hours a week the staff spends together is not enough time for that.

Thomas said administrators from other schools have called to ask about how the journalism program is working as an after-school activity.

”I absolutely wouldn’t advise it unless it was thrust upon them,” he said.

Students at Fremont High and Arcata High hope to keep their newspapers alive through after-school clubs until they can convince their schools to bring back the journalism classes.

”Everybody is going, ‘Well, OK, we have to make this club.’ None of us really want to see it end,” said Hazanchuk, the Fremont High Phoenix editor.

But Hazanchuk said she is worried that the newspaper cannot survive as an after-school club. She and her fellow staff members, who are also usually involved in other activities, often already work late into the night to finish production of the newspaper, so it would be difficult for them to devote more time after school, she said.

Nichols said the after-school option provides students with an opportunity to learn journalism and report important stories, but pushing publications to after-school clubs sends the signal that the school does not value journalism as part of the learning process.

Principals should reconsider making student media one of the first victims of budget cuts, Hiestand said.

”I think a healthy, active student press is part of creating a healthy, active, vibrant school community,” he said. ”I think that not having that and not having a place where the life of the school is recorded and shared, it’s something that does have a real impact.”

Phoenix adviser David Ramos-Beban said the newspaper is important for a school as diverse as Fremont High, with nearly 41 percent of its student body identified as Hispanic/Latino, to maintain a student voice on campus.

Hazanchuk agreed that the Phoenix helps connect the school.

”I think the newspaper is the student body’s way of being a part of the school and being a part of the leadership,” she said.

Ramos-Beban said that he is proud that his students have taken such an active role in defending their class and their newspaper, even if they were not successful this time around.

”This is what I hope to teach — how to think critically, how to exercise your voice,” he said.

Lay graduated from Arcata High in June and will study journalism at the University of California, Santa Barbara this fall. He attributes his and his fellow students’ love of journalism to their time at the Pepperbox.

Hiestand said the decrease in high school journalism programs might not have an immediate impact on the country, but will be felt in 10 or 15 years with the loss of a generation of journalists.

”I think that not having some of that training early on in high school, we’re going to see some detrimental impact from that,” he said.

Other journalism students go on to professions beyond journalism, but Nichols said the skills they learn in journalism classes will go with them.

”The experiences with observation, information gathering, fact checking, writing for an audience, collaboration, teamwork, time management and problem solving provide life skills that make them better equipped to make meaningful contributions in their larger communities,” she said. ”No other class offers all of these skills in a rigorous and authentic environment combined with the opportunity to use technology and impact others.”

By Josh Moore, SPLC staff writer