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Home > Publications > Quill > Educating the educators


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Educating the educators

Cynthia Mitchell

There’s a new push to aim First Amendment educational efforts at high school principals and administrators.

The rationale: If school leaders aren’t convinced of the value of incorporating the First Amendment into their school cultures, journalism teachers and media advisers will likely always find themselves locked in battle with their bosses.

“If you have administrators who understand the First Amendment, they’re less likely to do prior review and prior restraint,” said Logan Aimone, who was a high school newspaper and yearbook adviser for 10 years before becoming executive director last year of the National Scholastic Press Association. “So rather than teach the teachers, it makes sense just to get to the principals in the first place.”

Longtime First Amendment educator Sam Chaltain received funding from the Knight Foundation and the McCormick Tribune Foundation for two weeklong leadership academies in July and September. Ball State University’s J-Ideas program has a partnership with the university’s Teacher’s College to offer administrators an online graduate course, “The School Administrator and the First Amendment” and is holding workshops for teams of advisers, students and principals. The Journalism Education Association’s Student Press Rights Commission is embarking on a fledgling effort to reach principals. And Kent State University’s new Center for Scholastic Journalism is also looking for ways to reach administrators.

Ball State University’s J-Ideas program has a partnership with the university’s Teacher’s College to offer administrators an online graduate course, “The School Administrator and the First Amendment,” and is holding workshops for teams of advisers, students and principals. The Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission is embarking on a fledgling effort to reach principals. And Kent State University’s new Center for Scholastic Journalism is also looking for ways to reach administrators.

Meanwhile, journalism advisers across the country are making their own inroads.

“We absolutely have to explore every avenue we have,” said Carrie Faust, a journalism adviser at Smoky Hill High School who recently conducted a presentation and discussion on student press rights for 25 new principals and assistant principals in her school district in Aurora, Colo.

“While a full frontal assault is really important at the national level …We need to do it where we live. Sometimes one school at a time and one principal at a time is the way to go. Every time we get an advocate, it goes out exponentially.”

They’ve got their work cut out for them. Only a quarter of principals recently surveyed by the Knight Foundation thought that student media should be able to publish freely. And principals who want to censor have had the law on their side since 1988’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision.

That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for principals to engage in prior review and censorship if the newspaper was school sponsored and if it related to a “legitimate pedagogical concern.” Seven states have since passed laws that protect their high school press.

Otherwise, the path around the decision is to establish the newspaper as a public forum, either by policy or practice. If that’s the case, then administrators must prove their censorship is based on a reasonable forecast of “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities” or an invasion of the rights of others.

An idea toward education

Chaltain hatched the idea for his leadership academy during the 18 months the Knight Foundation gave him to reflect on his five-year tenure as director of the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Schools project. The initial idea when he received the Knight grant, he said, was to continue the First Amendment Schools project, which the Freedom Forum had decided to quit funding. But then he realized he needed to start fresh and improve on that model.

“It was through that process that I realized that the key domino is the principal,” he said. “In order for First Amendment principles to take root in a culture, the principal has to see the value and support the work.”

During the July academy, which trained 45 principals, each morning was spent on one of the five aspects of leadership that Chaltain has identified as critical to foster a democratic environment that balances the tension between individual freedom and group structure. (His book outlining that approach, “Degrees of Freedom: A 21st Century Handbook for School Leaders," is due out in December.) Each afternoon focused on one of the five freedoms of the First Amendment. The academy in September brought together teams of three – a teacher, student and principal – from 15 middle and high schools. Principals were introduced to Chaltain’s leadership framework while the students and teachers received media training. In between, the teams plotted ways they could foster more democratic learning environments when they returned to their home campuses.

The training is focused on “equipping educators with both the theoretical and practical understanding of how to create a democratic learning community so that the work is both grounded in some specific universals and room is also left for local communities to chart their own course,” he said.

When Kate McAnelly, principal of Beaumont Middle School in Lexington, Ky., got the e-mail from her superintendent, she said she was instantly intrigued, as her school has a very diverse population which can be challenging to manage. She wasn’t disappointed.

“The week was phenomenal,” she said. “It was so great to be around 40 other principals from all across the nation, to hear similar problems and ideas on how to make our schools more of a democratic community.”

This fall, she said, her school has instituted two of the ideas from the conference. Clubs and teams are all doing community service projects, and the school’s student council for the first time held school-wide elections for its officers, complete with campaign speeches.

Ball State University is in its fourth year of offering graduate-level credit to school administrators for its online course, “The School Administrator and the First Amendment.” So far, about 45 administrators have taken the course, according to Warren Watson, co-teacher of the class and director of J-Ideas, a scholastic journalism organization that until this spring was also a recipient of Knight Foundation funding.

Recruiting for the class has always been a challenge, he said, because “the people who need it don’t know they need it.”

That’s because the view among many administrators is that giving student journalists the power to make content decisions will only breed chaos and controversy.

“The First Amendment and tolerance for free expression is not universally accepted at the administrator level; in fact, there’s a lot of people working against it,” Watson said. “It’s going to take a long time to really get the principal side to recognize the First Amendment is important.”

In the past, he acknowledged, his organization and other journalism education groups “were doing lots of preaching to the choir, to use the cliché. Everybody’s doing programs for advisers, everybody’s doing programs for teachers, but a principal of a school who’s not supportive of student media can subvert the whole thing.

“It’s our belief you have to have all these elements in place,” Watson said. “A talented, trained adviser, enthusiastic students and supportive administrators to make student media go and to foster First Amendment experiences in general in the school.”

That’s why Watson’s group is taking another tack, as well: They’re holding one-day workshops that bring together teams from each school — the principal, the adviser and up to three students.

A workshop in Chicago in late February, funded by the McCormick Freedom Museum, drew 10 schools and 52 people, he said. The day included prepared material about the First Amendment and scholastic media law, information about how to develop teamwork around student media and case studies. The teams each prepared an action plan before leaving.

In September, teams of five from seven high schools in Indiana gathered in Indianapolis, thanks to co-sponsorship from the Indiana High School Press Association. And in October, teams from 11 high schools in Central California received training at the University of California at Berkeley with help from the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative. Two similar workshops are scheduled for December, at Michigan State University and in Fort Wayne, Ind., where J-Ideas snagged its first newspaper sponsorship, from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, along with the Indiana High School Press Association. Come spring, J-Ideas hopes to have sessions in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New Albany, Ind.

The Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission has outlined a few ways it hopes to reach administrators. It’s sending out posters on “Responsible Journalism” to guidance counselors, couched in terminology that often echoes school mission statements about training students to be responsible citizens, according to John Bowen, the SPRC chair and longtime student press advocate who also teaches at Kent State University.

The commission also hopes to take out advertisements in magazines targeted to high school administrators touting research released this spring by Indiana University’s Jack Dvorak for the NAA Foundation.

The new study echoes Dvorak’s work from 20 years ago. Both show that high school students with journalism experience had higher grade-point averages in both high school and college; had higher ACT scores; and did better in college.

Finally, they’re in the process of recruiting principals and superintendents who would be willing to present to their peers about the academic and other benefits of a free and responsible student press at national conferences for administrators.

Peer counseling

A few years ago, Bowen’s wife, Candace Perkins Bowen, and Dick Johns, then executive director of the Quill & Scroll Society, a scholastic honors society, had ASNE funding to present to a national principals’ conference. But they were scheduled for Sunday morning, and the conference was in San Diego — prime tee time, in other words, so attendance was dismal.

“We have to talk to the ones who do get it and see if they can help translate for us to the ones who don’t get it,” Perkins Bowen said. “You don’t want it to look adversarial, and you’ve got to think about what are the things that are important to them and see if you can make some kind of fit with what we think is important about free speech.”

Perkins Bowen is also now director of Kent State University’s new Center for Scholastic Journalism, another Knight Foundation-funded effort. She says they’re looking for ways to make inroads with administrators. One long-running effort that looks as if it’s about to pay off is an effort to help NEOLA, a company that works with 750 superintendents and school boards in seven states to provide policy manuals.

Perkins Bowen said a few years ago they discovered that the company’s policy manuals took the tack that the principal should act as publisher and make sure to clear all content decisions. When they met with NEOLA’s owner, “he basically agreed there was no reason they had to give just the one real restrictive option,” she said. So they’ve worked with them on alternative drafts that are far less restrictive. The last she heard, those drafts were making the final rounds with NEOLA’s lawyers, she said, so she hopes they’ll be in place soon.

Going forward, Perkins Bowen says they’re trying to figure out what will work that won’t duplicate the efforts of others.

“It’s not that there aren’t people out there working their darnedest to try to do these things. So let’s figure out ways to partner, lets figure out ways to complement each other, let’s figure out things that nobody else is doing,” she said. “There are plenty of things to do, but we just have to figure out what has the most impact.”

Meanwhile, Faust has already been invited back to speak to the new principals’ group in Colorado next year. And a couple have already contacted her for resources and information. It’s got Faust convinced that targeting new principals is the way to go.

“Now there are people in my district who realize they have, ‘quote,’ an expert,” she said. “I certainly don’t know all there is to know, but if they can call me first and I can find out answers before they have a bad reaction, that’s a good thing.”

Cynthia Mitchell is a professor of journalism at Central Washington University and also advises the school’s student SPJ chapter. In 2006-07, she chaired a yearlong First Amendment Festival at the campus, which featured 17 events and drew more than 4,500 participants. Before turning her career toward the classroom, she worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 10 years and The Wall Street Journal for four years.

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