Student Journalism as a Route to Civic Engagement
BY TERRY P. ARMSTRONG/School Administrator, June 2020

As superintendent in Lordstown, Ohio, Terry Armstrong promoted student journalism as a vehicle for civic learning.
John Dewey’s assertion that school is a social institution and should reflect the world outside the schoolhouse doors greatly influenced me when I was studying to be a social studies teacher. It would impact how I would approach teaching, leading a building as principal and guiding a school district as superintendent.

Helping our students become fully prepared for postsecondary life in college and career can be a challenge. In the face of constantly increasing mandates, engagement with the outside world is often seen as something to “fit into the curriculum” rather than as a natural extension of the curriculum. Upon being named superintendent in 2014 of Lordstown schools in northeastern Ohio, where I had started as a teacher years earlier, I knew I wanted to create an environment that would stimulate student engagement and instill the philosophy that democracy is a verb!

A Need for Sharing

Working directly with a newly hired social studies teacher, Courtney Gibson, we were able to raise the level of student political involvement through creation of a political history club. In recent years, that club has facilitated schoolwide programs such as candidates’ nights and events tied to Veterans Day, Constitution Day and what we have called Democracy Day. The students have attended political rallies and observed the caucus process in Iowa firsthand.

Next, we needed a way for students to share the information they were learning and researching and to reflect meaningfully on the events they were experiencing with their peers. One glaring void was the lack of a student newspaper and a journalism class to support it.

We were fortunate to have a newly hired English teacher, Ryan Hart, with previous experience as a student newspaper adviser. Students with an interest in starting a newspaper met with Brenda Linert, editor of the Warren Tribune Chronicle, following her Democracy Day address about press freedom at our school. I was excited to see students with a thirst for serving their peers as student journalists.

The school district supported their efforts by creating time in the high school schedule for a journalism class. The student journalists stepped up to create a quality newspaper, designed in true newspaper style and published on newsprint. Last November, the newspaper staff was chosen to share its success at the state’s largest student achievement fair, hosted by the Ohio School Boards Association. A special edition of the appropriately titled Devil’s Advocate (our school nickname is the Red Devils) was distributed to those at the statewide event.

Our students were particularly proud to host students’ rights advocate Mary Beth Tinker, who was the teenage plaintiff in a landmark 1969 Supreme Court case that defined student press rights, for a Democracy Day event. Student reporters interviewed her about her experiences during and since the ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, and about her current support of student activists, including those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Her visit came soon after our own students’ peaceful demonstration calling attention to student safety, which included writing letters and delivering them directly to state lawmakers at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
Journalism students from Lordstown, Ohio, with Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., on a trip to learn how the Iowa political caucuses operate.

Future Involvement

We are proud of our students serving as journalists for their peers and the engagement that has resulted from their active participation in the world outside the school doors. The student journalists have reported on issues affecting students at our school and their families, notably the closure last year of the General Motors assembly plant in Lordstown that once employed 14,000.

Mary Beth Tinker said it best during her visit when she greeted a writer from the Tribune Chronicle with “It is always great to meet a member of our free press.” We hope our students carry civic engagement with them into the future while protecting and promoting quality journalism for decades to come.

TERRY ARMSTRONG recently left the superintendency in Lordstown, Ohio, to work as treasurer of the Newton Falls Exempted Village School District in Newton Falls, Ohio.