Opinion

Small-town student journalists and advisers inspire giant admiration

May 28, 2022 3:33 am
Stand back and marvel with me, writes Eric Thomas. Consider how these Kansas kids are working on heroically small publication staffs in rural towns while juggling so many other responsibilities. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Stand back and marvel with me at the accomplishments of young journalists, writes Eric Thomas. Consider how Kansas kids are working with heroically small publication staffs in rural towns while juggling so many other responsibilities. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

If you look at the city of Burrton on an aerial map, the city of 861 people looks like a small piece of laundry hanging on the taut clothing line created by U.S. Highway 50 as it runs 30 miles between Hutchinson and Newton. The city is home to Burrton High School, with an enrollment of 73 students this year.

If you sat in the bleachers to watch the Burrton Chargers volleyball team last fall, you would have seen something curious. The head coach, from her position on the bench, would have been simultaneously leading her team while shooting photos for the school yearbook.

That coach, Kelli Zehr, just finished her 19th year teaching. At this 1A school, Zehr instructs three different middle school English classes, two journalism classes, coaches volleyball and sponsors the middle school student council. In previous years, she also was the head basketball coach.

Teaching — and especially teaching journalism — at a small school can be exhausting.

“It is a lot harder,” Zehr said. “I remember volleyball season. I am coaching. All six (of the yearbook) girls are playing, so I had to take photos. Here I am on the bench, coaching and snapping photos. It is a lot harder at a small school doing all of those things at once.”

The smallest schools in Kansas, classified as 1A or 2A by the Kansas State High School Activities Association, are almost absurdly small. The graduating classes are smaller than a single journalism class enrollment at some metropolitan schools. 

And yet the publications created by these staff are bafflingly ambitious. As the executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, I celebrate the work of student journalists all year long: scholarships, portfolio awards and even journalism state championships.

Student journalists persevered through another pandemic slog this year. However, I’m particularly impressed by the work of teachers and students at our state’s smallest schools.

With her staff of six girls, Zehr created monthly 12-page issues of the newspaper, along with a 96-page yearbook that will keep her busy until mid-June. At Wabaunsee High School, the newspaper students created 36 one-page issues for the local newspaper to fold into their coverage. That is a weekly publication — plus an online news site — for a staff of five students at a 2A school.

There are many others in this small-town journalism posse. Chase County Jr.-Sr. High School won its 16th state championship in journalism this year under adviser Linda Drake. St. Francis Jr.-Sr High School, perched all alone in the northwest corner of Kansas, won a 1A championship with only 67 students in the school.

To make it happen, small-school teachers and students do a bit of everything, including creating journalism about their communities.

McKinsie Hoopes, who graduated this month from Burrton High, has been the editor of the Charger Courier newspaper for the past three years. The day that she started journalism class was also her first day as editor-in-chief. A three-sport athlete, student council rep and National Honor Society member, Hoopes juggles editing the newspaper with two additional clubs.

– Eric Thomas

McKinsie Hoopes, who graduated this month from Burrton High, has been the editor of the Charger Courier newspaper for the past three years. The day that she started journalism class was also her first day as editor-in-chief. A three-sport athlete, student council rep and National Honor Society member, Hoopes juggles editing the newspaper with two additional clubs. 

“Most of our students do everything, if not most of everything,” Hoopes said. “If we didn’t join them, no one would be in any of those clubs.”

She also participates in so many activities because she doesn’t want to let anyone down.

“I am a people pleaser,” Hoopes said. “I don’t like to let people down. I don’t want to let you down. It is really hard for me to say no. Sports took a huge toll on me. It has helped me be a better leader. It has helped me figure out what I want to be later in life. If you need something, I will do it. There is a huge obligation that most people (at small schools) feel.”

Add to that obligation the pressure young journalists feel when they know each of their readers. 

“We don’t have a Burrton newspaper that is specific to Burrton, except mine,” Hoopes said.

“Everyone knows everyone. There is not a single face in that school that I couldn’t know their name and can say whether they live in town or in the country. You have a lot of friends that may not be your besties for life, but you know them and trust them.” 

This intimacy with your readers can make it intimidating to publish controversial news.

“At a small school it is really easy to cause a huge issue with something,” Hoopes said. “I really don’t think we publish many of those articles. We have a lot of other topics to cover.”

The exception for her staff this year was an article about how Spirit Week was canceled because of a controversy about the plans for a gender exchange day, when boys would dress up as girls and vice versa.

At Wabaunsee High School, editor Emma Alderman understands that criticism comes with the job of leading the Charger newspaper.

“It’s definitely nerve wracking because you know you are going to interact with (the students you are writing about),” said Alderman, who was named the 1A/2A Student Journalist of the Year. “You know there are going to be stares in the hallway. You know people are talking about you on social media. You still have to do it. It’s what you’re there to do. It’s part of the job.” 

One editorial in particular this year stirred responses from the Wabaunsee community. After a theft was alleged to have involved the volleyball team, the student newspaper wrote, “We’re glad that people in charge are taking (the theft) seriously, but unfortunately, some of the (volleyball) players still think it’s being blown out of proportion. We disagree.”

Along with a letter to the editor from the volleyball team in response to that editorial, the staff hears criticism — along with encouragement — from the community.

“We’ve been called fake news,” publications teacher Brendan Praeger said. “Just the vocabulary of that skepticism makes it down to their level. They are writing about the volleyball team. That’s not a liberal-conservative story. It’s a little different for the people in a small community though. When you talk bad about a journalist on CNN, that’s not your neighbor’s daughter.”

To encourage this kind of bold writing, Praeger asks his students to collaborate when they work out ideas.

“I want them to bring their ideas, and discuss them with me and their classmates,” Praeger said. “I do want them to feel pressure. I think that pressure is good in making them focus.” 

As a result, his staff creates coverage that serves readers with independent thinking. Their most impressive editorial this year described and dissected the school board’s approval of the R.E.S.P.E.C.T project, which welcomes “students to connect their faith to their learning.”

The nuanced writing in the student editorial explains the student journalists’ opposition.

“It’s not the role of a public school district to promote any specific religion,” the Charger staff wrote in their May 19 issue. “If the project were to promote freedoms without promoting a specific religion, that might be acceptable, but we have our doubts about that happening in our community. This risks alienating non-Christians and non-religious students. High school kids already face so many challenges, another opportunity for alienation is something we should avoid.”

Of course, journalism teachers ask for courageous writing regardless of the size of school or publication. But stand back and marvel with me. Consider how these Kansas kids are working with heroically small publication staffs in rural towns while juggling so many other responsibilities. 

It’s an inspiration for any journalist.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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