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Student journalists should heal and transform the world

JEA president Sarah Nichols, MJE, gives Rachel Simpson, principal of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in San Francisco, her JEA Administrator of the Year award Nov. 3 at the JEA/NSPA convention in Chicago. Here are her comments. Photo by Mike Simons.

JEA Administrator
of the Year, Rachel Simpson

Thanks to the JEA for this award. It is an honor to be here and an extraordinary privilege — and a wonderful surprise, frankly — to be recognized in this way.

Gratitude to everyone in this room for your work motivating student’ voice and student publication. Specifically, in relation to my own school — Convent of the Sacred Heart High School which is a division of Schools of the Sacred Heart  San Francisco — I would like to highlight the excellence of our student journalists and Tracy Sena’s role as their trusted adviser.

I don’t believe the concept of scholastic press freedom would be possible without the trinity of dedicated and ethically minded students, supported by a deeply committed and responsible advisor within a school culture that upholds the empowerment of student voice and agency as a core value.

Which brings me to the importance of school culture. Sacred Heart education — founded by Madeleine Sophie Barat in the wake of the FrenchRevolution — is rooted in the belief that education is a powerful weapon -she envisioned a transformative educational model that believes young people have the power to heal and transform the world.

I am therefore fortunate to lead a school where we are bound by five goalswhich combine to serve the education of the whole person — in faith,intellect, social activism, community and personal growth. Our fifth goal specifically is the “commitment to educate to personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom.”

Students love the word “freedom” and sometimes have to be reminded of the important modifier “wise” that precedes it. But when we lean into this goal in all aspects of school life, something magical happens: As a teacher, coach or administrator, one discovers there is less didacticism in this educational model, less telling and more asking, less fear and more trust, less doing to students and more designing with them.

In our school’s culture, I therefore see the protection of press freedom and having confidence in students’ saying what they need to say as an expression of Goal 5.

As a division leader, I am fortunate to work closely with our school president, Ann Marie Krejcarek, who talks often about upholding a culture for students where high expectations meet high belief in each of them and and what each is capable of. In the true spirit of Goal 5, she is not about setting boundaries for young people, but believes they will discover these boundaries for themselves if they are full participants in a culture and community they are proud of.

When many of our students were feeling particularly activated following the 2016 general election and there was talk of joining a citywide “walkout,” I was hesitant and fearful of the possible repercussions of our students’ participating. It was a “What should we do?” moment. Ann Marie and I huddled. Ann Marie articulated  confidence and faith in our students, saying: “Let them feel what they are feeling.”

So, we supported the students who marched out of school that day — not to send a message of political or politicizing solidarity, but to support students in their right to free expression. Holding the space for students to feel and express what they are feeling and thinking — and making room for a diversity of perspectives and opinions is at the core of our work – it’s not easy work, but it’s essential.

In an age when journalism and journalistic values are under attack, when the news is labeled “fake” and when truth is open to interpretation, I recognize the importance and responsibility  of building and upholding a culture where freedom of expression is supported by ethical decision as another educational core value.

In an age when students can say anything they want online and where one has the freedom of our digital age to do intended or unintended harm — to both self or other — it is more important than ever that our school cultures model and teach a respect for and understanding of one’s accountability to what one says via the printed word — in hard copy and digital form.

We must teach students to ask questions, to gather the facts, to interrogate those facts, and to make sense of multiple narratives.

Our school’s foundress articulated as a founding vision that “education within the schools would be profound enough to inspire people to rebuild, renew and transform society, wherever they lived.”

More than 200 years after Madeleine Sophie Barat claimed this vision, I am proud to collect an award that honors the inspiration and impact of our young people. Helping them find and use their voice to inform and inspire a wonderful honor to receive this acknowledgment and a testament of the enduring legacy of the Religious of the Sacred Heart who founded an academic order whose purpose was to heal and transform the world.

I am proud our students are already making progress in this work and thank you again for this recognition. It belongs to them.

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