Right to Write

Conestoga High School keeps student journalism on the up-and-up.

On either side of an assistant principal’s office at Conestoga High School is a narrow room with banks of Macintosh computers. One belongs to The Spoke, the school’s newspaper, the other to the Pioneer yearbook. It’s production night, so The Spoke’s editors and staffers will occupy both rooms until 7 p.m. Then they’ll be there until 8 p.m. tomorrow, when editors read over copies of pages. Next week, the editors will meet, make final additions and corrections, and then publish.

At 24 pages a pop, The Spoke is an exercise in freedom of the press that repeats itself—uninterrupted—seven times a school year. A year ago, a bomb threat at Conestoga led to an evacuation to the football stadium. When it began raining, students were moved to Tredyffrin-Easttown Middle School. While there, someone pulled a fire alarm. News of such an event could’ve portrayed the school’s administration in an unfavorable light, but the story ran on the front page of The Spoke’s next issue.

Student media is on the move at Conestoga High School. Its growing program might well represent citizen journalism among students at its best—or, at the very least, at its best among area schools. The Spoke’s outspoken and sophisticated opinion pieces and editorials center on everything from politics and war in the Middle East to school policies like dress code. They, too, are always published.

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Such access and freedom ought to be admired, especially in light of this month’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week March 16-22. The non-partisan, open-government initiative is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and primarily funded by a challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The week promotes open government and the right to access public records—things essential to all of us. Both are especially important now, as the debate to rewrite Pennsylvania’s open public records act, the Right-to-Know Law, continues in Harrisburg.

“The administration is good to us,” says Strafford’s Henry Rome, a junior whose responsibilities at The Spoke have evolved from that of reporter to news editor and now managing editor in the past three years. “It’s open with us, and we’re rarely turned away. I don’t know if it’s perfect, but we’re able to go after any story that interests us. We have the right, and we know we have responsibility, so we take advantage of that.”

In the past two years, the administration at Conestoga has accommodated an influx of student interest. The Spoke, which engages 40 upperclassmen (18 with editorial board say), is advised by Susan Houseman and Cynthia Hyatt. A corps of six freshmen—the “grooming ground”—is advised by Kevin Ruggeri. Pioneer has 51 students involved under advisors Megan Doyle and Mike Trainer. And 35 kids produce a spring literary magazine advised by Tricia Ebarvia and Ben Smith.

Of late, all three publications have consistently won top state and national awards. And newspaper staffers receive an annual invitation to teach others at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s spring conference in New York City.

“All the awards are due to Houseman’s investment of time and passion,” Ruggeri says. “Now she wants to maintain that.”

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Houseman preaches that instruction in media convergence better prepares student journalists, so The Spoke works closely with the district’s local public-access cable station, T/E TV (Channel 14). There’s also the website stoganews.com, which includes a blog (classroomreporter.blogspot.com). “It helps when editors also have integral roles in the production of the morning announcements,” says Houseman, who’s been working on her master’s degree in journalism at Temple University. “This year, the two crews cross-promote their products.”

Houseman is also the news director and executive producer for the live morning telecasts. Each day, 31 television students meet during first period to produce Good Morning ’Stoga and the live talk show Main Line Morning.

For each issue of The Spoke, Houseman gives the administration a heads-up on any potentially controversial stories. After all, the district pays the printing costs. As such, you’d think the administration would have more say. “But they really do leave us alone,” Ruggeri says.

Conestoga seniors Alice Zhang and Jonathan Yu are co-editors-in-chief of The Spoke. In exchanging newspapers with other schools from around the country, they’ve grown particularly fond of The Harbinger from Kansas. Their own staff peruses it for ideas and loves the “impeccable” layout. “It seems like they can deal with a lot of topics that would be interesting to teenagers,” Zhang says.

But that doesn’t mean the content is fit for Conestoga’s readership—and maybe The Harbinger’s larger staff and twice-a-month circulation simply means it has “more space to fill,” says Zhang.

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“If we kept writing about drugs and alcohol, it would seem like we were ranting,” Yu adds. “But their issues are definitely more controversial [than ours].”

That’s not to say The Spoke doesn’t occasionally spark controversy, as it did with stories about the ease of viewing grades online and a student arrested on drug offenses at school. For the latter, Rome accessed public records at the police station. “It was good to use the responsibility and the rights we have in an open democracy,” he says.

The Spoke never published the student’s name, citing school policy. Since then, the staff has consulted with lawyers and reached a different conclusion: The crime was a felony, and the student was over 18, so the staff could’ve printed his name. “We’ll do so in the future,” says Rome.

Recently, Rome has been “looking into” the College Board and the ACT, researching their IRS returns and following the money trail, a path famed investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein always advocated. Rome examined a breach in security at a district elementary school and middle school, where the same stranger entered both places on the same day.

Rome also reported from the set of the upcoming film The Lovely Bones, which was shot in Malvern. “That was big for us—though it wasn’t controversial,” he says. “We were able to get our own [photographs], though they were pretty strict about conducting interviews.”

The photos appeared on the front page of the Nov. 8, 2007, issue of The Spoke, the same day the Journalism Education Association National Convention was in town. Though Conestoga didn’t attend, the event landed for the first time in Philadelphia, the hometown of both the First Amendment and the nation’s first student newspaper, The Students Gazette, which was handwritten by Samuel Mickel Fox of the Friends’ Latin School—now the William Penn Charter School—in 1777.

The convention’s arrival in Philly couldn’t have been timelier. A wave of student press freedom bills has been sweeping the nation. In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed legislation in July 2007 to protect student journalists from censorship. The law—the first of its sort since 1995 and the only one to lump high schools and colleges together—makes students entirely responsible for their media. It also gives them and their parents the right to sue schools for violations of free-press rights. California (in August 2006) and Illinois (in August 2007) enacted kindred laws to protect college journalists.

Oregon joins six other states that protect high school journalists—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts and Kansas. (No wonder The Harbinger is what it is.) Pennsylvania has a school code that offers protections. They came under review recently but remained intact, thanks to a war waged by the Pennsylvania School Press Association.

If ever suppressed, The Spoke would put up a fight. “We would absolutely stand up to censorship if it was on an issue we didn’t think we should be censored on,” Rome says. “Plus, putting out something like this (he picks up an issue of The Spoke) isn’t something you can do in other classes.”

To learn more about Sunshine Week, visit sunshineweek.org.

 

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