journalism in jeopardy

Memphis student newspaper’s future uncertain after funder pullout

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Student journalists with The Teen Appeal meet for their monthly editorial meeting on the campus of the University of Memphis.

Thea Wilson remembers the first time she saw her name in print as the author a newspaper article in Shelby County’s official student newspaper.

“It was so cool,” recalls the 18-year-old Memphis senior. “Just seeing it and going home and saying, ‘Mom, Dad, look at the article! My name is in the paper! I did it!'”

The Teen Appeal, a newspaper distributed to all Shelby County Schools high schools.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
The Teen Appeal is distributed to all Shelby County Schools high schools.

Wilson is one of about 65 student journalists who write for The Teen Appeal, a monthly print and online newspaper open to all students in Shelby County Schools.

For more than 17 years, the publication has brimmed with articles researched and written by students across the county on topics ranging from school news to sports to fashion to entertainment. It’s been published through a collaboration of The Commercial Appeal, the University of Memphis Journalism Department and the Scripps Howard Foundation.

This year may be its last, however, unless a new funder comes forward before Dec. 31 to fill the gap created when the program lost its annual $71,500 grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The change was prompted by Scripps’ sale this year of The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ daily newspaper, to a media group based in Milwaukee, Wis.

Much of the grant pays for a full-time program coordinator, who also serves as an editor and mentor to the students. Under the partnership, The Commercial Appeal provides newspaper printing and delivery services to all 35 Shelby County high schools, with a circulation of more 16,000. The university’s journalism department provides an additional $10,000 to offer a journalism “boot camp” each summer for incoming staff.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in, and I’ve been in journalism for 40 years,” said Otis Sanford, a journalism professor at the university and former deputy managing editor for The Commercial Appeal.

“Just the idea of introducing high school students to journalism the way we do, the way it should be done — professionally — and link it to the journalism department and have these kids exposed … to the professors here and how we view journalism in the 21st century, I think it’s pretty special,” Sanford said. “I would hate to see us lose it because we can’t find what I consider to be pretty meager funding for a program that is so valuable to this community.”

The district currently supports only a handful of student newspapers, making The Teen Appeal the primary vehicle for student journalism across Shelby County.

Organizers say the program has been a sound investment by helping students to develop media literacy skills, engaging them in their school communities, and even inspiring some students to pursue careers in journalism and writing.

Alexis Ditaway, a 19-year-old graduate of Ridgeway High School, is a former Teen Appeal writer who now studies journalism at the University of Missouri, one of the nation’s premier programs.

“It’s important because there are kids in the inner city and surrounding area who want to write, want their opinions and ideas expressed, and they need a platform,” said Ditaway, now a sophomore in college. “It’s something that we need to continue.”

Supporters say the program’s list of accomplished alumni is a testament to the empowerment that comes with a vibrant student press. It also exposes students to career opportunities that most had never before considered.

“We’ve been keeping journalism alive in the public schools in the city of Memphis for all these years, and we’ve been raising professional journalists from a lot of the minorities of our city,” said David Arant, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Memphis. “They try to tell the great stories from their high schools, and they tell those stories in a light that we don’t always see in our daily newspapers.”

At a recent editorial meeting, about 20 students trickled in from the rain to a classroom on the university’s campus. Some drove or were dropped off by a parent, while others used city bus passes provided by the program. Each grabbed a slice of pizza before program coordinator and chief editor Elle Perry convened their monthly meeting.

“Does anybody have questions about a story they’re currently working on?” Perry asked. “Remember, it’s due on Monday.”

Launching into a planning session of the publication’s upcoming college edition, staff members spent the next hour pitching story ideas and brainstorming potential interviews and photographs. As a deadline-driven newspaper, students have three to four weeks to complete a story and correspond with Perry via email as part of the editing process.

“I let them speak in their own voices,” Perry said of her editing philosophy.

Thea Wilson joined the newspaper to meet more students and learn about journalism.
Thea Wilson joined the newspaper to meet more students and learn about journalism.

Sanford serves as the final editor before stories go to press.

“If we can grow some journalists for the next generation of journalism in whatever form that is, then we have already succeeded,” he said.

As for Wilson, she vividly remembers the challenge of writing her first article, interviewing strangers and turning their words into a story. But the result was enormously satisfying.

“It’s exciting knowing my work is being published,” she said, “and other teens read it and hear my voice about things.”

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Follow the money

Audit: NYC issued $2.7 billion in noncompetitive education contracts — and often violates its own rules

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology in July.

The city’s education department routinely violated state law and its own policies in issuing contracts worth billions of dollars — mostly awarded without a competitive bidding process.

That’s according to a blistering audit released Friday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the first major audit to scrutinize contracting by the de Blasio education department. It found that the department issued $2.7 billion contracts without a competitive process in fiscal year 2016, or roughly 64 percent of all spending on contracts.

The education department routinely failed to properly oversee its vendors, paid them late, and often directed them to begin work before proper paperwork was filed with the comptroller’s office, according to the audit.

“This investigation shows that DOE acts as though the rules don’t matter,” Stringer said in a statement which included 20 recommendations to fix the process. “When it comes to contracting, this is an opaque agency that refuses to accept responsibility, that often uses inaccurate arguments to defend backwards organizational practices.”

Some highlights:

  • Out of 521 “limited competition” contracts, the city directed vendors to begin work before filing appropriate paperwork on 85 percent of them. In one case, a contract was filed two and a half years after the vendor began work.
  • The education department did not correct sloppy oversight of vendors, despite a 2015 audit that urged them to do so. In some cases, “there was no evidence the DOE conducted performance evaluations, as required by the DOE’s own procurement rules,” the audit found.
  • The DOE spent $2 million to pay for “goods or services that had already been improperly purchased in violation of DOE’s procurement rules.”

Stringer’s findings come less than a month after the comptroller blasted the city’s management of education technology in a separate audit that found the education department has lost track of thousands of computers and failed to create an appropriate tracking system for them. Stringer’s harsh criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department come shortly after endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.

The Bloomberg administration also faced sharp criticism for awarding contracts without soliciting competing bids. The administration’s critics said the mayor was inappropriately applying business practices to public spending. But Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, dismissed the criticism, saying he’d “never seen [an audit] that didn’t say you couldn’t follow procurement rules a little closer.”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said the city’s procurement process is “rigorous” and “many of this audit’s conclusions are incorrect.”

“We perform background checks on all vendors and post them online, maintain the appropriate documentation on procurements, and recently implemented an electronic performance evaluation system,” Mantell added.