From the fourth grade on, and now as a high school teacher at my alma mater, I’ve been privileged to belong to the independent school community. Not only have I experienced firsthand what makes our small but vibrant community special, but I’ve also connected with colleagues and peer institutions to hone my craft — as well as learn more about the values our schools share. Across the board, I’ve found that independent schools pride themselves on offering one-on-one attention, smaller class sizes, and a caring and nurturing environment for students to reach their potential.
Many independent schools also share similar mission statements, which emphasize critical thinking, communication, and creativity. Moreover, the word “leadership” comes up often while scrolling through private school admissions materials — and while I believe that our collective school community upholds many of its core values, as a whole we are deficient at offering and teaching journalism, including newspaper production, essential for fostering those four core values.
What’s more, in the so-called “fake-news” era, with divided politicians unable or unwilling to agree upon a common set of facts, and with President Trump calling the media the “enemy of the people,” more than ever it’s critical for schools to invest in building robust journalism programs. As I write this article, I can almost hear administrators, who say that their schools already teach media literacy through existing curriculum. I maintain that unless students are also creating and disseminating their own news on a frequent basis, meant for public consumption, this is wholly insufficient.
Measuring Lack of Student Media at Independent Schools
Beyond a handful of the nation’s most prestigious and oldest independent schools, I fear that too few independent schools offer journalism programs or foster student publications. Where they do exist, they are likely to be on life support. This is a shame, especially because of journalism’s increasing centrality to everything that private schools hold dear about education, not the least of which is equipping young minds with skills to succeed after graduation.
Several years ago, I spoke with Mark Briggs, a former Ford Fellow of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Poynter Institute, who told me how experience in the newsroom gives students a big advantage in an increasingly competitive job market.
“If you can produce students who command a very diverse set of skills, who can also present themselves and create ideas and get behind them, and even sell those ideas — that’s the entrepreneurial spirit that we need in journalists,” says Briggs, also author of Journalism Next: Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing. “To me, that’s kind of the Holy Grail right now of journalism education.”
I couldn’t agree more, but I would add that while many students know how to create content, too few know how to produce high-quality content, the kind that makes them stand out to not only college admission officers, but also potential employers. We need to teach and encourage students to create and share original, quality content to brand themselves and their abilities in an ocean of increasingly indistinguishable resumes.
Beyond journalism’s capacity to foster an informed citizenry, the discipline might also help students achieve academic success. A comprehensive study sponsored by the American Press Institute found, among other benefits from supporting student voice, that “students with journalism experience in high school did better than non-journalism students in terms of both high school grades and ACT scores.”
The independent school community must take a difficult first step in acknowledging that when it comes to supporting student voice, in which journalism and student media play essential roles, we have serious work to do; 200 institutions claim membership to the Association of Independent Schools in New England, the geographic epicenter of the private school world. Yet Helen Smith, who serves as Executive Director of the New England Scholastic Press Association (NESPA), recently told me that the organization’s membership usually includes fewer than a dozen independent schools, compared to 70 or so public schools.
In New England, as elsewhere around the country, public schools far outnumber private schools, which likely accounts for the disparity in NESPA membership. Still, no math justifies any New England private school’s not paying an annual $50 membership fee, especially if that school wishes to stay true to its mission. In addition to providing a network of other advisers and student publications, NESPA provides consulting services and award recognition.
“I can’t imagine how any school, private or public, can be serious about student voice and not belong to NESPA, the region’s premier scholastic journalism body,” I told Smith.
“In any school, I think an awful lot of what determines the strength of student media depends on what administrators and department heads are ready to encourage,” Smith said.
Her words ring true, and I wish that more private schools had the foresight to encourage student media.
But it’s not just on a local level that support for private school student media falls short. I spoke with the President of the Journalism Education Association(JEA), Sarah Nichols, who oversees the nation’s premier scholastic educational body for student media and advisers. She told me that her organization doesn’t keep track of public versus private school membership, “but comparatively, the private-school number is quite low.”
All of this reveals a simple but brutal truth — unless a private school is working to establish a dynamic journalism program, it’s not doing all that it can to support students or sustain its philosophy. Furthermore, at least in Massachusetts, many schools are about to break the $50,000 tuition ceiling, making any financial excuse for inaction completely unjustifiable.
To learn more about the quality of student media at private schools, I connected with Erica Salkin, a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University (WA), who is writing a book about the subject. She has spent the previous several years reaching out to different kinds of private schools, learning about the strengths and weaknesses of their journalism programs, or if they exist at all. In reviewing her findings, Salkin said she found three chief reasons why administrators decide against taking action.