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Having supportive administrators is not a fairytale

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by Teresa Scribner, CJE, Cleveland STEM High School Seattle, Washington

Once upon a time, there were three administrators. These warriors stood for racial equality, social justice and making sure all students in their school felt safe, seen and heard. They were champions of student voice, advocates of the school’s journalism program and defenders of student press rights.

They have slayed complaining parents and poured money into the program when there wasn’t much to give, all in the name of protecting their students’ rights to free press. They are every journalism teacher’s dream.  

But this is not a fairytale; this is my reality.

I have been a teacher at Cleveland STEM High School in Seattle, Wash., for nine years (11 if you count the two years I worked as a volunteer). I have worked under different two principals and four assistant principals, but one thing has remained consistent: their commitment to student press rights and social justice. 

In 2009, one of Cleveland’s history teachers asked if journalists from The Seattle Times could help the school restart the newspaper, which had been dormant for 12 years.

They had eight bright-eyed students and no money, but they were committed to reviving the journalism program. 

Their first newspaper was a simple tabloid sheet of paper folded in half, printed on the school’s copy machine. It was awful. For the second edition, they managed to find money to have to paper printed by a professional company – and just like that, The Cleveland Journal was reborn. 

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It was two years later when I learned that same history teacher, who was now one of the assistant principals, had paid nearly $2,000 of his own money to have the newspaper printed. That was my first glimpse at how committed the school would be to the journalism program.

It was two years later when I learned that same history teacher, who was now one of the assistant principals, had paid nearly $2,000 of his own money to have the newspaper printed. That was my first glimpse at how committed the school would be to the journalism program.

The administrative team got an overhaul in 2013. Dr. Reed and the head principal, who had also been supportive of the newspaper, both retired, and the other assistant principal took a job at another school. They were replaced by George Breland, Catherine Brown and Ray Garcia Morales – the dream team.

Without these three leaders, Cleveland’s journalism program would not be the success story it is today.

When Washington state passed its New Voices bill in 2018, I did not need to coach my principals through the rules; they had already familiarized themselves with the law. As a media teacher who came from industry, it is easy for me to forget all of the rules and regulations that are tied to the profession of teaching. I’m not as knowledgeable about the New Voices as I should be, but I have not had to be. 

I can count on one finger the number of times I have clashed with my administrators over news we put out. It was a tweet about the death of one of our students. I didn’t feel the need to fight them on it because they had already proven time and again that they have the best interest of our students at the forefront. 

When the admin team learned we were writing a story about a teacher who had been let go over sexual misconduct allegations, they did not try to stop us.

Instead, they helped us get interviews with district leaders after they had been instructed not to comment on the matter. When we put out a story about the lack of oversight on game day attendance by student athletes, it caught the attention of the state’s athletic association and the athletic director was forced to sit down for an interview with my student journalists.

These are just a couple of examples of dozens where our administrators put the rights of the students ahead of keeping the school’s pristine appearance.

“Cleveland’s administrative team has demonstrated unflinching support for our journalism program, even when it means weathering and listening to critique from student writers,” said Sam Cristol, a 12th grade humanities teacher. “They understand the importance of stepping back to let our students’ voices flourish.”

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Well, this is a love letter to all of the administrators out there who not only support, but also champion scholastic press rights.

I’m sure some of you reading this are wondering what this story has to do with student press rights and free speech. Well, this is a love letter to all of the administrators out there who not only support, but also champion scholastic press rights.

When your school leaders are so supportive of your student journalists and the work they do, it really makes a difference on the quality of work they produce. It also reaffirms the work they do is important to the success of the school, no matter how critical it may be. 

“We have students serving on the Building Leadership Team and Family Engagement Action Team,” said Cristol. “Our administrators know that valuing the student voice must be done with more than just lip service. They are intentionally sharing leadership with the young people we serve, and in doing so, are fostering an empowered student body.”

For years, I have listened to students and teachers from other schools complain about administrators forcing them into prior review or censoring their publications.

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There has never been a question of, “can we cover this.” It has always been, “how can we help you get this message to students and families.”

I got lucky, but my students have also taken advantage of the relationship we have built with our admin team to produce some compelling journalism over the years. There has never been a question of, “can we cover this.” It has always been, “how can we help you get this message to students and families.”

It is an approach that all administrators should take because it is ultimately in their best interest to support scholastic press rights. 

My relationship with our administrative team may sometimes feel like it happened overnight, but I know it is built on mutual respect for my students and respect for the work we do.

Our journalism program – and our school as a whole – thrive because our school leaders know that without student voice, no one wins.

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