Journalism slashed at Sterling High School

Next year student journalism will essentially be dead at Sterling High School in Sterling, Kansas.

And the Unified School District No. 376 Board of Education put the nail in the coffin during its Feb. 10 meeting as the members voted 6-1 to eliminate the position of the journalism teacher, citing budget concerns brought forth by Principal Phil Bressler and Superintendent Jim Goracke. 

The decision withstood the public statement of Sterling High School alumna Morgan Anderson who spoke during the public comment period of the March 9 board of education meeting. At the same meeting, board member Bill Kilgore said he regretted voting to eliminate the journalism teacher position. He said he was wrong.

All of this means my position as the part-time instructor — 0.3 full time equivalency, to be exact — has been eliminated.

Now, this isn’t a disgruntled diatribe about the loss of a job I love doing and did not voluntarily remove myself from after eight years of service to the students and school district of Sterling, Kansas.

I am also a full-time faculty member and assistant professor of media at Sterling College. Though the loss of this income stream will be felt by my family, my concern is not for my financial well-being.

Instead, I have grave concerns for the students at Sterling High School, especially those students interested in journalism, and being a journalism educator, not voicing my concerns would be hypocritical and an affront to the ideals and values I hold.

As a Certified Journalism Educator recognized by the Journalism Education Association and an individual who has his master’s degree in journalism, I know that without a certified and engaged journalism teacher the students will suffer because the classes will be thrust upon other educators in the building who have no interest in fulfilling the role of journalism adviser, and such individuals will lack the knowledge and training to do so effectively. 

And that’s the plan as it has been explained. 

A few teachers will take on the role of yearbook adviser to ensure the annual publication continues, but those teachers have not expressed any desire to take on this role and have no formal training in the journalism arena. 

As for the other journalistic offerings, there has been talk of letting the students enrolled do individualized projects without any clear direction for the type of work that needs to be completed. It could be podcasts, online newsletters or anything of that nature.

I was even told one option might be to bring in a retired newspaper journalist who lives in the area. The idea would be for this person to volunteer or be paid essentially minimum wage to advise the students. 

None of the plans, if they can be characterized as such, will work. They aren’t viable. 

None of the plans provide an adviser that understands how scholastic journalism works. The individuals might have some of the necessary technological skills to do the actual work, but they don’t know how to support a student-led journalism program. This means not telling the students what to report but serving as a sounding board and educator to help them grow as budding journalists. 

Though there are elements of entrepreneurship involved, student publications at Sterling can’t be run as a business. It is a learning laboratory for media creation. The learning of the media must come first. 

In scholastic journalism in Kansas, the adviser is not the publisher. He or she cannot dictate what is written or how things are covered like publishers can in the professional press. The control and decision making power rests uniquely in the hands of the students, who are publishing their homework for the masses to consume and critique.

Additionally, being the adviser requires work nights after school, taking students to conferences and contests, and coming in during the summer to finalize yearbook and then get the next academic year’s publications started. 

The obvious predication that one can make is that within a year or two, the entire program will wither and die because there will be limited support and sustenance provided for it.

Of course, this decision appears to have been made quietly. It seems not many in the community or even school knew about it. The elimination of the part-time journalism teaching position wasn’t presented as an agenda item to be discussed during the board of education meetings. There was no way the community could be informed about the school losing this vital and award-winning program.  

In fact, the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a non-profit organization that exists to support high school journalism programs in the state, wrote a letter to the board of education highlighting the concerns the organization and its members had about the elimination of the journalism instructor position. However, that letter was quietly tucked into the board packet and not discussed in an open meeting. 

Also, KSPA requested time to speak to the board at the Feb. 10 board meeting. That request was denied. 

The school board seems unwilling to put this important, student-impacting items of the agenda, they don’t let outside groups comment, they go into executive session and then they vote. 

That is not the transparency that Sterling deserves from its board.

I was not consulted on the matter either. I wasn’t brought in to discuss any of it. Instead, I was told about the changes after those tapped to take over had already been informed. 

Bressler talked to my students about the situation without me present as well, so I am being cut out of the loop as much as possible. Furthermore, the retired journalist was invited to observe my class on a day the administration knew I would be gone, and the plan is for this individual to continue attending my class on any day I am absent.

Again, there seems to be a concerted effort to keep me out of the loop.

The Feb. 10 board meeting was the first clear, semi-public action taken on the matter, even though the journalism students and myself were told that the decision was final in December and Bressler said he made the decision around October. At that time, it was characterized as a done deal.

Even the appearance of a lack of transparency is concerning, especially since such opaqueness has been increasing over the past few years, and governmental transparency is crucial to our democracy.

Furthermore, this decision directly impacts students and their education. 

It is the type of information journalists cover, and the student journalists at Sterling High School did report on it in the February issue of the Cub Reporter, which is the monthly student newspaper.

They did what they could to shine the light on these decisions that will impact the students, especially for students not enrolled in the journalism classes.

Some might argue the non-journalism students won’t be impacted, but that is false. Student journalism serves many functions. At least one of which is media literacy. By having a student newspaper and yearbook in the building, students are exposed to the news in a way they may not be outside of the classroom. 

Media literacy is crucial in this time of politicians using the term “fake news” as a cudgel to attack journalism and any news they disagree with. Students need to know how to discern fact from fiction and what information can be trusted by considering the source.

A student-produced and journalistic yearbook or newspaper can’t achieve the goals of teaching media literacy on its own, but it can help in the process.

That won’t be the case at Sterling High School next year, though. Principal Bressler has said they are killing the print newspaper entirely in favor of the online and digital alternatives mentioned previously.

Bressler told KSPA that he plans to have students produce news content hosted — as a student publication — on the school website. 

This could easily create legal complications. 

If any school official alters any content produced by the students on that website, it would be in violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act, which is a Kansas law protecting student journalists and their rights to freely publish and exercise their First Amendment rights.

The decision to put themselves in such a potentially volatile situation seems short sighted at the least. It creates the atmosphere where the school district could be sued.

Also, it is beyond comprehension to cut off a program that has a storied and successful history.

Since 2007, the Cub yearbook has earned the KSPA All-Kansas designation six times. That means it was named one of the top high school yearbooks in the state for its classification six times.

As a former KSPA executive board member, I can’t stress how much of an accomplishment this is.

Likewise, the Cub Reporter news publication has been named All-Kansas as well. 

On years when All-Kansas was not earned, the publications often earn the “silver” designation when considering the All-Kansas as the “gold” award.

Since 2012, students involved in the Sterling High School journalism program have been named journalist of the year for the school’s classification size five times. Four of those winners have come since 2015.

Just last year, Morgan Anderson received the $1,500-per-year Victor Murdock Scholarship from the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University thanks to her participation in the program.

Other students have received the Hutchinson News Future Journalist Scholarship, and several have placed in the National Scholastic Press Association national contests. 

Furthermore, since 2012, Sterling High School has placed in the top 10 every year when it comes to the statewide contest. One of those finishes was for third place, and four of them were for second. This means the Sterling High School program finished second in the state four out of the past eight years.

Now this is just a snapshot of the success the program has had, but it seems there is a strong case to support its continued existence, regardless of who the adviser is moving forward.

The fear, of course, is that won’t happen. Again, it seems likely the program will wither and die.

The argument has been made that enrollment has been declining, so cutting the program makes sense. That is false, and the assertion that enrollment is in a tailspin misconstrues the numbers. Individual classes vary, but the number of students involved in the journalistic offerings has not significantly decreased.

The number of students has ebbed and flowed over the years. However, during the past 14 years, the average number of students enrolled in journalism courses is nearly 12 per year. Often, the journalism courses are up against other classes that have high involvement, such as band or choir. This prevents interested students from being able to take both, and so they must make a choice. If the schedule were altered where core and other classes were not competing for students, the number enrolled would likely be eyeopening. 

Regardless of the number of students, though, the district incurs very little cost. 

The only financial support the school directly supplies is via the adviser’s salary, which is a fraction of a full-time salary. Otherwise, the program is self-funded by selling advertising in its publications, and the staff is eternally grateful for that community support.

Sometimes a little support has been provided in the way of paying for membership to KSPA and other organizations, but that is rare and only under special circumstances, equating to less than $100 in most instances.

Now, for some equipment, grant monies are received and used to get new cameras and other production tools. Of course, that means it does not affect the pocketbook of the district. 

Therefore, using budget as a concern to eliminate this opportunity for students doesn’t seem to hold much weight. This is especially true considering all of the other ways the district spends money. 

The administration has claimed another full-time math teacher needs to be hired. Of course, at the start of this year a brand-new position was enacted to oversee the weight lifting program, sports teams have as many as four coaches for less than 30 players, and there is a brand new agriculture program.

This year also marks the emergence of a baseball team as part of a cooperative agreement with neighboring Lyons High School. As part of the agreement, Sterling provides a coach.

These are good things for students, but I question if they are better than a more academic pursuit, such as a vibrant student journalism program.

Even though the money has been spent on these additions, no math teacher has been hired, and it doesn’t appear the job has even been advertised. 

Of course, one has to keep in mind Bressler has made clear he believes journalism is dead. In fact, he made such a comment to the journalism students themselves at the beginning of the year, and he has repeated such a belief to various faculty members. Usually such comments are also accompanied by the idea that print is dead, even though print publications like a yearbook and newspaper provide the historical record of the school and community.

Bressler told me he is just doing what the district feels is best for students.

How can anyone suggest they are doing what is best for students when they are actively eliminating opportunities for the students themselves?

How is it best for students to force overworked teachers who have no training to take on the program?

Journalism provides a hands-on, project-based-learning opportunity in the English Language Arts curriculum. What a journalism program does is allow students to read, write, use problem solving skills, and learn to translate information from a source into something that others can easily understand. 

Journalism is 21st-century English.

In 2011, then-principal Bill Anderson received KSPA’s Administrator of the Year award for his support of the journalism program at Sterling High School. It is abundantly clear those days are gone. 

It’s a sad state of affairs. In fact, during a recent conversation with an educator at a different school, the comment was made that she always thought highly of Sterling High School as a place that held its academic programs in high regard. 

That polish is going to be tarnished if such actions that involve eliminating and damaging academic opportunities continues. 

I hope common sense prevails and the journalism program is saved. Without it, generations of Sterling High School students will miss out on incredible opportunities.

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About toddvogts 771 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.