Photo: Emily Swanson. Jonael Lantigua (left) and Yazmin Muniz (right), student writers for the Eagle Express at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology.

South Bronx students find their voice through journalism

In the South Bronx, some student journalists are reporting on everything from school sports to video games to the real meaning of Thanksgiving, and they’re learning how to shoot and edit videos on professional equipment. But those students are a relative rarity.

Even in the media mecca that is New York City, 73% of NYC public high schools do not have a student newspaper, according to a new study by professor Geanne Belton at Baruch College. And schools with newspapers typically are more affluent and have higher graduation rates.

In the Bronx, 85.5% of schools do not have newspapers, compared to 69.3% in Manhattan, 50% on Staten Island and 52.5% in Queens. Those represent lost opportunities, Belton said, because working on a newspaper can help students learn team building, meeting deadlines, how to revise their work, and even the importance of a free press in sustaining a democracy.

But at two South Bronx schools, newly-created opportunities are allowing students to try their hand at journalism and, in turn, have their voices heard.

EAGLE EXPRESS
Jacqueline Maldonado, 16, thinks like a reporter. As a writer for the Eagle Express at MS 223, the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology on E. 145th Street in Mott Haven, she recently interviewed a favorite teacher and was surprised to learn she used to teach a theater class that is no longer offered.

That’s when Maldonado’s investigative streak turned on.

“I wanted to find out what happened there, what went wrong, and how we could get it back,” Maldonado said. “It’s a repeated pattern of wanting the arts in the school and the school kind of failing to do so.”

She plans to conduct a student survey to gauge interest, talk to experts about why arts access is important, and talk to the school administration about the possibility of bringing back the theater class.

Maldonado’s idea would be an ambitious story for the Eagle Express, which covers everything from video game reviews and sports recaps to the impact of Hurricane Fiona on the South Bronx. Students are free to pursue their own ideas, and students like Maldonado have found that one idea can lead to something totally different.

Jonael Lantigua, 18, is a sports reporter, keeping busy covering the school basketball teams. In the future he wants to be an FBI agent, not a journalist — but he sees overlap with his current role. FBI work and journalism both involve, as he put it, “showing people what people don’t see.”

A December edition of the Eagle Express.

Lantigua and fellow student Yazmin Muniz, 17, were student founders of the Eagle Express.

Muniz said, “It’s highly important to have a newspaper. I feel like it documents not only things that happen within the school but in the community.”

To Muniz, the Opinion section is critical because “it gives the students a voice.” With the Eagle Express up and running, she said, “I think it’s a major step towards making sure our students feel represented, our community feels represented.”

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Bill Ohl, one of the school’s founders, bounces between classes throughout the day and got roped into being an Eagle Express advisor. Initially skeptical about adding more to his schedule, he now is glad he did: “I’ve enjoyed brainstorming and being creative with students.”

Ohl pointed out that most schools feel a need to focus on core subjects and standardized tests, while creative opportunities like music, art, and newspapers are often considered a luxury that only wealthier schools can afford.

David Fulco is an English teacher and lead advisor for the Eagle Express. He wrote for his college newspaper and later did some sports and travel journalism, but he said, “No amount of experience in a newsroom can prepare you for starting a newspaper from scratch.”

Fulco says staffing is a huge obstacle to having more student newspapers in less advantaged areas. “In the South Bronx, with its high teacher turnover, it becomes really, really hard to have sustainable after-school programming” of any kind, let alone a new project that needs to be built from the ground up.

Fulco took a short course with Belton at Baruch to learn the practicalities of starting a student newspaper, including budgeting and selecting the first stories.  He handpicked juniors last year to launch the paper,

Things got off to a rough start, with only one story published by year’s end. But the Eagle Express found some allies. Press Pass NYC, a nonprofit created to support creation of high school newspapers, lent a hand, and Newsday reporter Matt Chase reached out and now works regularly with the students.

Fulco is cautiously optimistic that the Eagle Express can sustain itself. “We have dedicated advisors, and we have a product,” he said. What would really help, he said, is to offer a class in journalism during the school day instead of having it be an after-school activity.  The school has only about 400 students, and after-school activities pull students in many directions.

SBAAM MEDIA PRODUCTION CLASS

The Media Production class at the South Bronx Academy for Applied Media can best be described as controlled chaos. The class meets in a brand new TV broadcast studio, equipped with a green screen, lights, tripods, cameras, computers for editing, and a newly assembled blue news desk featuring the school logo.

The teacher, Leonard Collier, has years of experience as a producer, creative director, and multimedia artist. With the help of Collier and an assistant teacher, students set up three cameras, adjust the angles, put on mics, check volume levels, practice lines, and enjoy looking official behind the desk.

When a student director called, “3, 2, 1, roll it, action,” students began interviewing each other on camera. Collier had scripted some getting-to-know-you questions: Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What is your favorite memory at SBAAM?

Getting kids engaged through media is what the school is all about. The kids were busy from bell to bell, knowing their work will be displayed on the school’s digital bulletin board for all to see.

Kaiden, age 11, said he took the class because he wanted to learn how to use a camera and edit. While he prefers being a cameraman, he also enjoyed interviewing on camera and was excited that everyone saw it on the digital bulletin board.

He already shoots a lot of videos of himself playing video games like Minecraft. Collier said a lot of students are doing this, even practicing editing skills by cutting out the parts when their character dies.

Ahmad, age 11, took the class because “I like the spotlight.” He enjoyed shooting the interviews and giving input to the student editors. In the future, he wants to be a chef, probably not a broadcast journalist, but he does want to have a TV show, so he’s happy to learn these skills now. “I feel like I’m privileged to have it.”

Collier said the most powerful thing his class offers students is “encouragement to allow their voices to be heard” and to “control their narrative.” While some students don’t have the attention span to write, he said, they do see skills they’re able to do at home, since they’re already creating videos for YouTube and Tik Tok.

In October, the class produced a school newscast called SBAAM News and Current Events. Collier wrote the script, but students led production and editing. With projects like these, students are learning new technologies and practicing interpersonal skills.

These opportunities don’t come cheap; the school received capital funds and a grant for the studio. But Dr. Roshone Ault Lee, the principal, said students are “not just playing school” but learning practical skills that she hopes will carry with them into high school and beyond. Collier is equally enthusiastic. “You have to be able to do one, two, and three different things at the same time, and do them well,” he said of the class. “it’s a microcosm to the real world.”

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