Bringing the power of word to high school

High School Journalism Workshop, a course offered in SMC, teaches newsgathering skills.

Senior Jennifer Nguyen (right) talks with local teacher Christine Swift as part of a high school journalism workshop. | Claire Sasko TTN
Senior Jennifer Nguyen (right) talks with local teacher Christine Swift as part of a high school journalism workshop. | Claire Sasko TTN

Students spend the majority of High School Journalism Workshop off campus, without classmates. 

Professor Maida Odom said this is all part of experiential learning. Students in High School Journalism Workshop travel independently to different high schools in Philadelphia to help students and teachers create school newspapers. Odom, a journalism professor and the course instructor, stresses the importance of this type of hands-on learning.

“I think it’s an opportunity to do some good and also learn something at the same time,” Odom said. “It’s part of an overarching notion of community-based education where a lot of your learning doesn’t take place in the classroom, and I think that’s very important, particularly for journalists.”

The program started eight years ago and was originally intended for interns, but quickly opened up to undergraduate students. Acel Moore, professor and retired editor from the Inquirer, and Dorothy Gilliam, the first female African-American reporter at the Washington Post, were the first to foster the program.

Odom said the program tends to challenge some students’ comfort levels when they begin.

“What is interesting is students enter the high school class – this used to happen a lot – and they’d come to see me in the first few weeks and say, ‘This school is like a prison, it’s horrible, I don’t ever want to go back there,’” Odom said. “And then they come back to me at the end of the semester and say, ‘I love these children, I want to be a teacher.’ And so I think in that way it has changed some lives.”

Odom said she believes some college students’ upbringings affect their initial views of the classroom.

“A lot of our students come from suburban or rural school districts, where they’ve had a very different educational experience than the students and teachers they meet in Philadelphia classrooms,” she said.

Odom said she hopes High School Journalism Workshop will spread awareness of the inner workings and challenges of urban school systems, which, she said, people may tend to overlook.

“This class offers experiential education for our students, and it offers an opportunity for students in the Philadelphia area to become empowered, engaged civically and to feel like they’re being listened to,” Odom said.

With the recent attacks on Temple students by Philadelphia teenagers, Odom stressed the importance of a second look at the way some inner-city teenagers are treated in society.

“I’m personally troubled by the decision to try these young women who assaulted Temple students as adults,” Odom said. “This doesn’t in any way detract from that fact that it was horrible what happened. But this decision to try these children as adults and to be dismissive, I wonder if it corrects the problem.”

Odom said the situation hints at a larger issue that needs to be addressed.

“Now, if the problem is the relationship between the community and Temple, [where] we know that there are some tensions, that’s worth addressing in a positive way,” Odom said.

Christine Swift, a teacher at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, located at 16th and Berks streets, said she doesn’t detect many tensions between the high school students and Temple community. However, she said that during  her nine years of teaching at Carver, she’s noticed the effects of Temple’s expansion and has seen her fair share of “frat boys smashing bottles in parking lots at night.”

Swift said students at Carver are typically dedicated to their work.

“Our kids come from all different situations,” Swift said.  “Some of our kids are homeless. Some come from crazy backgrounds. But something, somewhere in their background motivated them to try for something more, and now that they’re here, they want to try more. That’s why some of these kids won’t leave our buildings until 5:30 [p.m.].”

Carver is a magnet school with selective admission requirements. Students who are accepted must have an “excellent behavior record with no discipline reports,” according to the school website.

Senior journalism major Jennifer Nguyen frequently visits Carver for High School Journalism Workshop. She also visits Benjamin Franklin High School, a public school located near the intersection of North Broad and Spring Garden streets.

“Ben Franklin is the [high school] that I feel like I have to work a little harder to reach the students, especially since the school’s graduation rate is a lot lower than Carver,” Nguyen said. “It seems like a lot of students don’t know where to go or who to turn to for support. Just showing that you’re there and encouraging them to do something, even if it’s just the school newspaper, I think it means the world to some students in the area.”

Though Nguyen focuses on art and fashion-based feature writing, she said High School Journalism Workshop has made her more passionate about public education as a topic. She said the course has made her aware of many issues involving urban education.

“[For] the government, in terms of funding schools, education seems to be at the bottom of the list,” Nguyen said. “That in itself can tear down students. Why can’t students get proper, simple education? That can lead to students feeling defeated and like they can’t achieve as much as others.”

Because many neighboring schools have closed, there has been an influx of students at Ben Franklin. Nguyen said this has produced a hectic and less cohesive school environment.

Swift said Carver recently suffered many budget cuts, forcing administrators to terminate programs that connected Temple students to the high school. High School Journalism Workshop has had its smallest enrollment ever this year, at just four students.

Odom said she is worried that students are losing interest in the class. Students like Nguyen are hoping to foster interest among students and journalists in High School Journalism Workshop.

“We don’t talk about [public education] as much as we should,” Nguyen said. “For journalism students, it gives us an outlet for seeing what is going on and a chance to properly inform through our writing. The students, they don’t feel like anyone cares. It’s something people should be aware of. Education is a very important part of life.”

Claire Sasko can be reached at 

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