Classic Journalism

Secret recordings and charges of ‘fake news’: How two award-winning student journalists exposed their principal’s missteps

Mehrose Ahmad and Sumaita Hasan ran the Townsend Harris High School newspaper, The Classic, which recently won a national student-journalism award.

Last Dec. 8, the managing editor of the Townsend Harris High School newspaper, The Classic, recorded a remarkable scene on her iPhone: Her classmates at the celebrated Queens school were staging a sit-in.

As the editor, Mehrose Ahmad, defied the school’s cell-phone ban to record rows of students sitting shoulder to shoulder against the fourth-floor lockers, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Sumaita Hasan, interviewed her classmates and provided commentary for those watching the video live on the Classic’s Facebook page.

Hasan explained that the students were protesting the school’s interim principal, Rosemarie Jahoda, whose unpopular policy changes the paper had written about just days before. Ahmad then recorded an education department official sharply questioning students about their grievances while Jahoda stood by silently and watched, a spectacle that outraged some viewers.

Within days, the school’s parent and alumni associations — citing the Classic’s reporting — had called for Jahoda’s ouster, while the paper’s video of the protest went on to rack up more than 30,000 views.

“The beauty of our coverage was that it was so sudden,” said Hasan, now a freshman at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College in Manhattan. “From there, it just took off.”

At a time when news organizations are fighting for credibility, the coverage at Townsend Harris has been seen as a powerful display of journalistic persistence and accomplishment.

In the months following the sit-in, Ahmad and Hasan cultivated confidential sources, obtained secret recordings, and filed public-records requests as they chased the biggest story of their fledgling careers: the controversy surrounding Jahoda and the search for a permanent principal.

In the process, they confronted unresponsive officials and accusations of “fake news” even as their paper’s readership swelled and the city’s major news outlets scrambled to match their reporting.

For their leadership, Ahmad and Hasan and their colleagues at the Classic were recently awarded a 2017 Courage in Student Journalism Award from the national Student Press Law Center. Earlier this month, the pair flew to Dallas with the paper’s faculty advisor, Brian Sweeney, where they accepted a $1,000 prize and a standing ovation from thousands of fellow student journalists.

“They were the right kids at the right time,” said Sweeney, an English teacher who tapped the duo for the Classic’s top posts when they were only juniors. “The magnitude of what they were doing was not lost on them, but they were never overwhelmed by it.”

After the sit-in, the journalists began to aggressively report on staff and student complaints about Jahoda, who had arrived at Townsend Harris that September after clashing with teachers while serving as an assistant principal at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science.

In quick succession, they wrote about longtime Townsend Harris faculty members searching for other jobs, Muslim students alleging that Jahoda responded insensitively after another student harassed them, and Jahoda using profanity during a staff meeting. (Jahoda did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but she has previously called some of the allegations against her inaccurate.)

Other schools might have blocked their student papers from running such explosive stories, in light of a past Supreme Court decision that limited students’ First Amendment rights. But the 33-year-old Classic, which dozens of students contribute to each year, is uniquely protected: By tradition, incoming Townsend Harris principals (including Jahoda) sign an agreement not to censor the newspaper.

The editors used that freedom to undertake hard-nosed investigative reporting, which often required convincing school staffers to share sensitive information about the principal.

“The secrets that these two kids held could have destroyed a number of people,” Sweeney said.

The pair continued reporting on Jahoda during winter break.

After combing through hundreds of comments on an online petition opposed to her appointment, they tracked down teachers and students who had tangled with her at her previous school. That led to a story about a Bronx Science graduate who said Jahoda had prevented her from receiving accommodations for a visual impairment — allegations that other newspapers later reported on and the education department investigated.

Officials never restricted the duo’s reporting, but they sometimes appeared frustrated by it.

Jahoda eventually stopped responding to the newspaper’s requests for comment. In response, the Classic published an open letter signed by 22 editors under the headline, “Ms. Jahoda, it’s time to stop being ‘unavailable.’” They also staked out her office for hours at a time.

Later, an education department official insisted that “fake news” was being circulated about the school. Ahmad and Hasan took the accusation personally, penning a letter to the mayor, schools chancellor, and superintendent in defense of their reporting, which often kept them at school until late in the evening.

“Calling something ‘fake news’ just because it gives a negative portrayal of you — that’s just wrong,” said Ahmad, who now attends Barnard College in Manhattan. “It completely dismisses all the hard work we’ve done.”

This spring, as the city decided whether to appoint Jahoda as the permanent principal or someone new, the Classic covered every twist and turn of the search.

When Ahmad and Hasan learned that 38 people had applied for the plum position, they requested the list of candidates under the state’s Freedom of Information law using a template they found online. (Their request was denied.) Undaunted, they waited until finalists for the job arrived at the school to meet with a hiring committee, then dispatched reporters to conduct flash interviews in the hallway.

In late April, some five months and dozens of stories after that first sit-in, the Classic learned that the city had decided on a permanent principal. Determined to report the news first, Ahmad and Hasan pre-wrote two stories ahead of the announcement: one in which Jahoda was given the job, and another in which she was replaced.

On April 20, members of the school’s leadership team told a large crowd of students, teachers, and parents gathered in the school library that Brian Condon, a principal from the Bronx, had been chosen for the job. The crowd was still digesting the news when the Classic posted its article under the headline: “JAHODA’S OUT.”

Ahmad, who is now an arts editor at her college newspaper, recently reflected on her award-winning partnership with Hasan. She said part of their success stemmed from divvying up reporting duties, but most important was their shared sense of mission.

“We’re never deterred,” she said. “Nothing can really stop us.”

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.