On a recent afternoon, student Will Foster is leading an editorial meeting at Payton College Prep on Chicago’s Near North Side. Thirty students are sitting around the classroom discussing story ideas for the next issue of Paw Print, Payton’s newspaper.
“Does anybody have an idea right now that they are excited to share?” asked Will, a senior.
The ideas run the gamut, from food reviews to the role of the school library in a digital age.
“I might do something about the coronavirus, but use that as an angle to talk about his flu season and how it’s been so deadly,” one student said.
Payton is one of the few Chicago public high schools that still has a thriving newspaper. Just like other newspapers across the country, high school newspapers in Chicago Public Schools have struggled to stay afloat. Enrollment declines and financial constraints at the school level have also contributed to their slow demise.
“Definitely print newspapers have been on the decline,” said Michelle Dueñas Mowery, an English teacher and journalism advisor at Payton. She is also the vice president of the Scholastic Press Association of Chicago, an organization that supports high school journalism. She has been with the group for 10 years.
A big problem in CPS is that journalism classes, where students learn to write and create a newspaper, are usually electives. And schools tend to cut electives when their budgets are lean. If that were to happen at Payton, and the school didn’t have financial support from its parent organization, Dueñas Mowery said they’ve have to cut electives and be left with only a newspaper club with an online publication.
That’s what happened at Mather High School on the Far North Side. The school had a thriving newspaper called the Mather Free Press.
“The students who were writing some of these articles ... realized the power of the pen and they realized their words mattered,” said Ryan Kuchnia, who taught journalism for 13 years and helped run the Mother Free Press for eight.
Students at Mather wrote about topics like gender inequality and LGBTQ issues. Kuchnia said their articles sparked conversations about important issues schoolwide.
“That was in the glory days of like 2007, 2008, 2009, when we had a bigger school we had the full funding, the newspaper was coming out monthly,” Kuchnia said.
But as enrollment dropped, so did the budget. The high school newspaper was one of the programs to first see cuts. The school got rid of a journalism elective, then cut the funding to print the paper, he said.
The school switched to an online publication as a solution, but that didn’t go well. Eventually, the Mather Free Press stopped publishing.
“For whatever reason, the online newspaper at Mather never got people excited,” Kuchnia said. “There was something about the visuals of print, being able to hold the newspaper, the kids seeing their friends and being able to read articles about them and awards they have won. There was something about the print newspaper that is magical. That’s sad it’s faded. I didn't realize how cool it was until we didn’t have it anymore.”
For students, this meant the loss of a chance to weigh in on some conversational topics, like they do at Payton.
Some topics include unpopular school policies that students say aren’t designed to meet their needs or Payton teachers removed in 2018 amid allegations of inappropriate behavior.
“I wanted to explain as best as I could the situation and have the culture of the school changed at all,” said Will, who was a junior at the time. “The sensitivity of the topic was sort of difficult for me, but I felt like it really helped me grow as a journalist.”
Will is the type of kid who’s been reading the Chicago Tribune since he was in fourth grade. His passion for print journalism dates back to middle school, where he was also the editor of his school paper.
But for students who are newer to journalism, tackling a variety of stories, including the most controversial ones, is a unique learning experience.
“I definitely became a more critical thinker, and I also think I became more confident when I am talking to adults,” said Mimi Mahata, also a senior at Payton.
That’s the type of meaningful learning experience other teachers want to see students have at their schools.
At Curie High School on the Southwest Side, school officials are willing to try something new to bring back the school paper. Starting next year, the school is offering journalism as a four-year concentration, not just as an elective.
Curie has had a newspaper off and on over the years. But the biggest challenge there was recruiting students who can actually be part of the program for more than a year. Teachers also have noticed a loss of student interest in writing.
“The other challenge is that their graduation requirements compete with elective classes,” said Umbreen Qadeer, a Curie English teacher. “So instead of having journalism compete with a graduation requirement, why not make it a graduation requirement?”
Qadeer hopes that as her school commits the funds and the academic support, her students will discover the power of the press and maybe even consider becoming part of the next generation of journalists.