Amplifying Student Voice Through Their Publications

BY AMY BESLER/School Administrator, June 2020

Amy Besler, director of secondary education in Elk Grove, Calif., sees major upsides to encouraging students to exercise their voices through school publications.
I arrived on the scene at Bear River High School in Grass Valley, Calif., in 2015 — a first-time principal ready to take the world by storm. The historical reputation of the school was fairly strong, but positive stakeholder perceptions were waning.

After scoping out the existing state of affairs, I discovered some significant needs related to communication and a lack of shared identity. It was particularly important to me that students would ultimately grow to have a high degree of ownership of Bear River’s culture.

As a former high school yearbook adviser, I knew how powerful student voice could be in shaping, capturing and conveying a school’s culture. At the time of my arrival at Bear River, student journalism was relegated to an afterthought, an English department elective that served to round out teaching assignments and fill students’ schedules.

What passed as the student newspaper consisted of a couple of poorly printed pages rife with uninspired articles (the byproduct of class assignments rather than a desire to convey something important). It was read by almost no one. Copies were left to litter the campus and gather dust on shelves.

Confronting Reality

As all school administrators know, one of our biggest leverage points as leaders is our ability to hire talented people and then encourage their efforts. I was lucky enough to have a brilliant, experienced journalist (with no teaching background) walk into my office. It became immediately clear that I needed to figure out how to hire Christina Levinson and support her development as an educator.

Before long, she had turned a rag-tag bunch of unwitting students into journalists who took the initiative to develop a fantastic online news site with meaty articles, sleek graphic design and companion video components. We collaborated on ways to use the platform to showcase and reinforce our values and celebrate the good … but, of course, real student journalism cannot just live in Warm Fuzzy Land. It must confront things that are controversial, uncomfortable and even jarring at times.

During this period, the #MeToo movement gained tremendous momentum and then, in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Fla., student voice took center stage throughout the nation as students were walking out and speaking up. My student journalists wrote hard-hitting pieces on these serious topics and others that landed even closer to home, such as a teacher from our school who was facing criminal charges for domestic violence.

On the one hand, as a proud principal trying to build a positive culture and improve public perceptions, I naturally wanted only positive reporting out there about my school. And yet, my higher calling as an educator beckoned that empowering young people and helping them grow in skills and confidence was a far superior endeavor.

Inevitable Stumbles

No matter the stickiness of the subject matter, I never declined an interview requested by a student journalist — not once in my three years as principal. This openness helped establish their credibility and set the tone with the rest of the staff. They stumbled along the way (often asking leading questions, making last-minute requests or failing to have done proper advance research), and their adviser and I helped guide their efforts. Before long, they were earning national journalism honors and, even better, developing passions that would lead to careers or manifest in other meaningful ways in their adult lives.

No doubt, the idea of students owning a school’s culture and speaking to it publicly is mildly terrifying (and, at minimum, messy), but I would argue they own it whether we are intentional about helping them form it or not. I cannot underestimate the value of school and district leaders recognizing, supporting and actively encouraging students to use their voices to own and shape their schools and communities.

AMY BESLER is director of secondary education in the Elk Grove Unified School District in Elk Grove, Calif.