By SECC Correspondent Mitchel Benson
Innovative Sacramento-Area Journalism Program Builds Writing, Critical Thinking Skills and Teamwork
At a time when claims of “fake news” are filling the public airwaves, websites and the nation’s newspapers, an innovative journalism program in the greater Sacramento region is helping teach high school and middle school students the newsroom basics of accuracy, teamwork, deadlines and pride of authorship.
More than 100 students at 10 area high schools and two junior-senior high schools are collaborating this year on the reporting, writing, picture-taking and editing of The SacCounty Breeze, a print newspaper that is published three times a year with a press run of about 4,000 copies per issue.
Many of the students who work for The Breeze come from schools that have no journalism class, club or program or –more importantly – no newspaper of their own. So, this is their only academic opportunity to participate in newsgathering and publishing.
Steve O’Donoghue, a longtime Oakland high school journalism teacher, created the Sacramento-area program about seven years ago, after launching similar efforts in Oakland and Contra Costa County. O’Donoghue, the director of the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative, has since introduced a similar program in Chico.
O’Donoghue estimates that more than 1,000 students have gone through the Sacramento program since its inception seven years ago. And, like many program advocates, he points out that the benefits of working on The Breeze go far beyond providing teenagers with a taste of newspapering:
“Research has shown that students who take journalism have better writing and critical thinking skills, do better on standardized tests and have higher GPAs. So, if a student doesn’t have journalism classes to attend, the schools are really denying them an opportunity to pick up skills that will serve them in whatever career they choose.”
Each school that participates has a faculty adviser and a student who serves as the on-campus editor to coordinate and keep track of assignments. The student editors – and all the other students on The Breeze staff – work closely with two well-respected former professional Sacramento journalists who serve as writing coaches: Walt Yost, a former Sacramento Bee reporter, and Sharon Ito, a former reporter and anchor for KXTV, the ABC affiliate in Sacramento.
The entire Breeze staff comes together once a month, usually at The Sacramento Bee, to discuss their newspaper, stories and trends in the news and, typically, to hear from a professional journalist guest speaker.
The learning experience continues when the issues come out – in October, March and May. “It really helps them to see their work published,” said Aland Hoermann, a social science teacher and former longtime journalism advisor at River City High School. “When they see the article and compare it to others from other high schools, it gives them a sense as to how they stack up with other high school students.”
For the students at Gerber Junior/Senior High School, the experience and opportunity can have a life-changing effect. Gerber is a small alternative, county-run school of about 27 students, many of whom have been expelled from an area school.
“For a lot of them, this is a first opportunity to write for a publication,” said Daniel Watts, a career technical education instructor at Gerber and its faculty adviser for The Breeze. “They get to write stories about their journey: why they got here, how they are trying to turn their lives around. They get out of this the satisfaction of getting published. I’m giving them an avenue to express themselves.”
The Bee co-sponsors The SacCounty Breeze program with the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE). The county education office provides about $30,000 annually in Career Technical Education funds to cover the student newspaper’s publishing and administrative costs.
SCOE Communications Director Tim Herrera considers the office’s investment as money well spent.
“High school journalism students look at the world through a wider lens,” Herrera said. “What we’re really doing is we’re not necessarily preparing future journalists. We’re preparing the whole person”
“These students are not necessarily going to be the next award-winning journalists for the New York Times, but the foundational skills students get from this program are transferable to anything they want to tackle.”
The dozen schools participating in The SacCounty Breeze: Davis High School, Elinor Lincoln Hickey Jr./Sr. High, Florin High, Foothill High, Gerber Jr./Sr. High, Hiram Johnson High, McClatchy High, Rio Americano High, River City High, Kit Carson High, Kennedy High and Laguna Creek High.