D.C. middle and high school students collaborate to create newspaper

D.C. high school student journalist Claire Parker was shocked when she learned last fall that her school was one of the few in the area with a student newspaper.

At a school presentation last year about student press rights by Mary Beth Tinker, the plaintiff in the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, Parker learned that no more than six of the 51 traditional schools and no more than seven of the 37 charter schools in D.C. had student newspapers.

“I assumed that other schools must have papers, but they don’t,” said Parker, who is the managing editor of Wilson High School’s student newspaper, The Beacon.

Within a few weeks of Tinker’s presentation, she’d hatched the idea to cultivate new student newspapers in local schools, starting with middle schools.

“Middle school is such a pivotal age for students,” Parker said. “It’s a time of development, for students to have and use their voice, for them to have a voice in their community.”

She called her idea The Paper Project and started work in October 2012, when she was a sophomore. At first, it was hard to find a school that wanted to work with her to create a student paper. Parker said she spent months calling D.C.-area middle schools, only to find that “traditional middle schools didn’t want anything to do with us.”

“They said they didn’t have the time to commit to starting a paper and made it difficult to communicate within the school,” Parker said. “It was really frustrating for a few months.”

Parker eventually found success after contacting Chavez Prep, the middle school run by Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, and she and a team of four other Wilson students and Beacon staff — Maria Brescia-Weiler, Lauren ReVeal, Annie Rosenthal and Sarah Torresen — worked to assemble a team of students at Chavez.

The girls were aided by January Morrison, a U.S. History teacher at Chavez, in their search for a group to staff the new paper. Morrison said Chavez is a good place to foster a student newspaper due to its conducive administrative environment and student interest.

“Chavez is great because we don’t have to worry about being censored,” Morrison said. “They want us to be provocative. Real change can be uncomfortable, but it’s just part of the process.”

“It is a high-poverty, high-needs school, but it is also high-performing,” Morrison added. “There are lots of very motivated students. I want these students to self-advocate, to be forces of community change.”

Parker said there were about 20 middle school students who came to the initial interest meeting, but the core group of staffers narrowed down to six when the paper’s production began in March, with Morrison as its adviser.

The high school mentors decided to focus on teaching writing and photography for the first issue of The Eagle. They helped the students to brainstorm ideas for stories they wanted to write, and made digital cameras available for the students to take pictures, Parker said.

Morrison, who also recruited work from students who were not on the paper’s staff, said she encouraged the students to self-advocate about community issues through their pieces.

“We want to build critical thinkers, not just a regurgitation of what I’m teaching,” she said. “They need to get below the sources of things, to find out why something is the way it is. These are the skills they will need forever.”

The mentors worked with Chavez students on Mondays, and occasional Thursdays, in the afternoon. The first issue took months to complete, Parker said.

“For the first issue we ended up with four pages,” she said. “They wrote about events like going on to high school, movie reviews, and even an opinion piece about cyberbullying.”

The issue also includes summer horoscopes, scans of student drawings and a photographic year in review.

Jasmiahya Young, who wrote a movie review for the paper’s inaugural issue, said the experience helped her learn how to write and how to get people’s attention. She said she’s thinking about writing an opinion piece this year about whether students should be required to wear black and white shoes in addition to their uniforms.

Morrison said she has been especially impressed by the subjects students want to address through the paper. The first issue, which was published in early June, features a poem titled “Fatherless” written by a seventh grader. The poem begins, “Why father, why bother make me, / if you weren’t going to stay to raise me.”

“These issues in the community, they are important to share,” she said. “It’s good for students to see their work in print so they know that their thoughts and ideas are important.”

Morrison said it is beneficial for the middle school students to work with their high school mentors.

“[The mentors] are so adult — it’s great for the middle schoolers to see the Wilson girls,” Morrison said. “They are kind and self-motivated, and it’s good for the students to spend time with students outside of their own community without being afraid. The girls are great role models.”

Serving as mentors to The Eagle in addition to keeping up with their own classes and work at The Beacon is something that Parker says can be difficult.

“I end up donating lots of lunch periods to my school’s paper,” she said. “I use the weekends for administrative stuff for the Paper Project. It just takes a lot of prioritizing and coming up with creative ways to get things done.”

Lauren ReVeal, who teaches students about feature stories and is also an editor of The Beacon, says her involvement with The Eagle is more of a hobby than a career path, but she is motivated by her desire to involve younger students in journalism.

“I want to support journalism and newspapers as much as I can, since some people see it as a dying field,” ReVeal said in an email. “Because of this, I want to continue to help out with the Paper Project so that kids can learn how to be journalists and continue to keep the trade alive.”

Many of the Chavez students who were part of the first issue have gone on to high school, but a few plan to continue working for the paper this fall, Parker said.

As the staff gets more comfortable with their jobs, Parker says she wants to continue to push students to cover more issues, including controversial topics.

“We didn’t have any sports articles this time, which is probably because the staff is all girls,” Parker said. “So next year we have a few goals, which include recruiting more boys and writing more sports stories.”

Parker said she wants to produce five 8-page issues at Chavez over the next year, and hopes the students will be able to run the paper on their own by the end of her time as director.

“By the time I graduate, I want to have worked with one or two other schools,” Parker said. “I also want to train a team at Wilson to take over our positions. Sustainability is important, and I want to expand on the idea, to make a model of how we did it at Chavez, so it can be a blueprint for the next team.”

Around two dozen students came to The Eagle’s interest meeting in September to learn more about joining the staff in its second year. Parker said she was pleased and excited that many in the audience were sixth-graders, which means they can carry on the paper after she’s gone.

Morrison said she hoped some of Chavez’s 9th graders could be copy editors. She said she and other teachers planned to read newspapers, like The New York Times’ kids edition, in enrichment classes at the school.

“Displaying original thought with a smile is important,” Morrison said. “The work they’re doing at the paper is important because it’s socializing them, and it’s encouraging them to think outside of their own contexts.”

Funding will also be an important factor in maintaining production of The Eagle. In order to fund its first issue and the supplies needed to produce it, the Paper Project employed a Kickstarter campaign with the help of the Future Project. The Future Project, a nonprofit that supports creative ideas in high schools, helped raise awareness about the project.

“Kickstarter is how we’ve funded everything,” Parker said. “The $700 we raised covered the printing costs and the supplies, but we’re still working on a budget for next year.”

Morrison intends to seek advertising revenue from the business community around Chavez to help fund the paper.

“I’m going to look into advertisements with Columbia Heights businesses with the help of a student next year,” Morrison said. “Promoting local, sustainable businesses will help build more community partnerships. We want them to be a part of this community newspaper.”

Although Parker said the project is not widely known about at Wilson High School, she says people have reacted well to it when they learn about it. Morrison said the same about the paper’s reception at Chavez, but says the student staffers’ peers are “incredibly supportive.”

“There was just silence when we gave out the preview of the first issue,” she said. “They were reading for pleasure, reading about themselves. They were lifting each other up instead of putting each other down.”

By Allison Russell, SPLC staff writer. Samantha Sunne contributed reporting.