#SJW11: Great educators ignite the fire, and encourage taking risks

Great journalists aren’t born that way. They are encouraged and seasoned by many, and like most students, mine was a high school newspaper adviser who recognized promising talent and had the ability to spark creativity and inspiration in their students. That person for me was Patricia Costrini.

I was fortunate to attend a brand new high school that had modern facilities, including two well-equipped adjoining classrooms with a huge shared darkroom for a newspaper and a yearbook staff.  The challenge was up to Mrs. C. (as she was affectionately known) and the yearbook adviser to quickly take those empty rooms and fill them with the buzz of writers, photographers and artists.

Mrs. C. gave us faith in our abilities, support and encouragement. She pulled it all together and made the newsroom seem like a family, and in a sense we were. We cracked jokes, did incredibly wacky things and were free to express ourselves in that room. We stressed out on deadlines, yelled at each other and yelled back. Just like in a professional newsroom.

And under her tutelage, we had surprisingly early success. In only the second year of publication, we were judged the best newspaper in the state by the Florida Scholastic Press Association. The lead stories in that edition were a serious feature story about holiday depression in teens and a hard news story about a problem with school key thefts. The typical, must-do stories such as the upcoming school play or the latest football team victory were delegated to the back of the paper.

Mrs. C. was cool and let us publish things students at that age and era cared about: a huge, front-page color photograph of a Styx concert, and the fatal Lynyrd Skynard plane crash (I still remember the headline: “They’ll never go back to Sweet Home Alabama”). But at the same time, we tackled far more serious issues: the school’s new roof was leaking and needed $1 million in repairs and who was responsible; gay students were fighting for freedom of acceptance, even back then; and a first person account from a student who graduated from a Scared Straight-type of in-patient drug rehabilitation program.

Fortunately, there are still hundreds of Mrs. or Mr. C’s in our high schools everyday advising young student journalists, inspiring them, encouraging them and giving them confidence in their ability. For the days in which an adviser may go to work in the morning wondering whether their efforts are making a difference, it absolutely is. From the moment an adviser enters the newsroom, they provide guidance and serve as a mentor to their students and have a great influence on their lives. While many of their students may not go onto careers in journalism as I did, advisers still have a significant effect on their student’s educational and professional skills and give them greater skills and better opportunities in their future employment.

In preparation for Scholastic Journalistic Week, I researched my high school paper to see how it is doing today. I’m happy to report it is still writing timely and substantive news articles for today’s students. Among the stories I found over the last several years was a column about pregnancy that candidly discussed options including abortion; a first person account from a female student about overcoming anorexia that began in the third grade and eventually ended in a week-long hospital stay; and a feature about the challenges facing students living independently due to parental issues and trying to balance work, paying the never-ending bills and completing their school work.

What I also discovered during my search is that Mrs. C. retired from the school two years ago with a long career of inspiring many young journalists to go on to become professional reporters and photographers. Here’s how the story about her retirement in the school paper ended: “We love you Ms. Costrini. You have helped us all so much this year, and we really appreciate it. We will miss you so much next year. You will always have a place in our hearts.”

That would have been a great way to end this column, but as I was ending my search, I found something else. I learned that the new adviser, Susan Earley, is carrying on Mrs. C.’s trait for teaching students quality journalism. Last year she received the Joseph W. Shoquist Freedom of the Press Award at the Southern Interscholastic Press Association annual convention. So while Mrs. C will always have a place in my heart, it’s heartening as well to know the tradition continues at my old school.

Beverly Keneagy is the SPLC’s development and communications consultant. We’ll have more #SJW11 posts from the SPLC team every day this week. Please share your stories with us via Facebook and Twitter (@SPLC_org).