The best Kansas student journalism provides a window into the lives and talents of teens

May 12, 2023 3:33 am
Participating in the Hot Dog race during the baseball game against Blue Valley High School on April 20, Blue Valley West High School juniors Cooper David, hot dog, and Jason Michael, ketchup, fade behind senior Josh Kidd, mustard

Participating in the Hot Dog race during the baseball game against Blue Valley High School on April 20, Blue Valley West High School juniors Cooper David, hot dog, and Jason Michael, ketchup, fade behind senior Josh Kidd, mustard. The Hot Dog race became a traditional charity fundraiser in 2022. “I was so glad to dominate those guys around the bases,” Kidd said. “Mustard all the way.” This photo by Lamya Alam of Blue Valley West High School won second place for student life photography in the KSPA April monthly contest.

As staffing in professional newsrooms shrinks, journalism educators in Kansas have delivered pep talks to their students.

“If you don’t cover it, no one will.”

“It’s our responsibility now.”

“How often do you see our high school covered in the local media?”

“Local news matters. And this school is local news.”

In response, Kansas student journalists continue their remarkable work. As the executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association (KSPA), I have a front-row seat to their work. Our contests, scholarships, critiques and portfolio reviews invite all kinds of ambitious work.

Professional-level sports photography. Inspired graphic design. Video work that serves a paying client.

As the school year wraps up, let’s review some of the best work submitted to KSPA’s monthly contests. Here’s one disclosure: Our monthly contests are most popular among big suburban schools, so you will need to read my homage to small schools from last year to appreciate their small-town accomplishments.


Kansas politics in the local classrooms

High school students, while they might try to convince you of their rebel status, generally want to conform and not get in trouble. So, let’s celebrate the bold students who risked rankling their parents, teachers, administrators and local school board members. (In some cases, I can confirm that they heard backlash, because their teachers contacted me for advice on how to handle it.)

Two stories from Derby High School covered local controversies. Nik Shay’s news story earned first place in news writing last month for gathering local reactions to enforcement of “neutral classrooms,” a concept that the story characterizes as requiring classrooms to be scrubbed clean of any vaguely political expression. The story asks whether a personal photo of a LGBTQ relationship on a teacher’s desk might be considered political.

Shay interviewed Derby High teacher Nathan Whitman, who said, “By enacting this policy, we’re telling many of our students that they are not welcome; that there’s something wrong with them. It’s not an overt statement. It’s a statement through erasure.”

In the feature writing category of last month’s contest, William Henderson (also from Derby) earned first place for reporting on how recent book bans are playing out in the school library. The headline reveals that no books had been removed from the library. However, the story explains how one book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” was “banned from class curriculum and removed from the middle school libraries.”

The topic of banned books inspired De Soto student Liz Coenen to write a column in March that earned third place in column writing.

“Taking away (…) LGBTQ+ educational books can do serious damage for current youth later on down the road,” Coenen wrote. “Not reading or learning about the topics during adolescence can lead to an even more dangerous future for the LGBTQ+ community.”


Writing about transgender issues

Other generations should look to current teenagers as models of tolerance for transgender people. In the face of recent anti-trans legislation in Kansas, our state’s student journalists have been exemplary.

Sophia Ball, a student from Shawnee Mission Northwest, wrote a moving column in April about her 21-year-old brother, Dre. The storytelling here humanizes an issue that can easily become irrationally partisan when left to politicians.

Ball describes a haircut that was part of Dre’s journey. As readers, we witness the family’s reaction and how their disappointment deflates her brother in the midst of his transition:

“Days of dressing their niece’s hair and plaiting it with precious bows were over.

“As the barber swiveled the chair, letting the family take a moment to see the finished product beneath the blanket of glares, I could make out only one smile.” 

It’s vital that young writers like Ball explain the pain that our anti-trans reactions create. Intimate stories about the transgender people in our lives will create real change in how we treat others.

In addition to that column, Miranda Elgin of Olathe West High School explained their experience as a nonbinary student: “Even though it’s such a hated thing, I feel like nobody really knows what being non-binary actually is.” Their matter-of-fact writing explains what it’s like to “start over.” 

“I had been made fun of and looked down on by my peers, that it was still a fear of mine,” Elgin wrote in her first-place column. 

In a recent entry, the staff of The Budget at Lawrence High School also wrote about anti-trans sentiments: a news story about their school’s walkout in protest of the anti-trans legislation.


Bringing national news close to home

Young journalists are often tempted to act like White House correspondents, writing about national political issues without access to the experts and sources they need. The results can be bland, uninformed stories.

The sharpest students instead localize issues, finding sources in their schools who can illuminate national stories.

That’s what Luke Frenzel of Bishop Miege did in reporting on how fellow students waded through Taylor Swift ticket calamity that eventually led to congressional hearings. It’s what Kyle Hess of Blue Valley Northwest did when she interviewed people in her school community about abortion for her yearbook’s coverage on reproductive rights in post-Roe America.

Check out this inventive video from the students at Maize Career Academy who found a way to localize one of the most vital stories about young people today: how phones are disrupting their sleep. The video earned first place in video news in a recent KSPA monthly contest. (Students from Mill Valley earned a first place award for similar coverage of social media’s dark side.)

Just like the professional media, high school publications has clustered the story of the year — artificial intelligence — and more specifically, its connection to education. Consider this feature story from the Lawrence Free State student website, plus an award-winning illustration and team coverage from Mill Valley High School.


Olathe South High School juniors Lorelei Balmer and Easton Eckles slow dance while lights flash around them
Olathe South High School juniors Lorelei Balmer and Easton Eckles slow dance while lights flash around them. From March 2-4, the Awesome 80s Prom, an interactive improv play, invited guests from all over Olathe to dance the night away. Students and parents alike came dressed in bright colors and 80s attire to attend the “dance.” “It was so much more fun ‘cause every night is distinct in my mind as far as most shows are like,” Eckles said. This photo by Devon Schmidt of Olathe South High School won first place in the KSPA March monthly contest.

It’s our story to tell

The word “hyper-local” has been a buzzword in journalism. While some in the news media think it means something different from “local,” it’s impossible to distinguish between local and hyper-local. 

For high school publications, “local” means covering the news that affects their community — and their community only. And what a job Kansas schools do in this respect!

Graham Brown, a student at Heritage Christian Academy, earned the 3A/4A Videographer of the Year from KSPA with a portfolio that included an incredible documentary about his school’s basketball team. The players get a treatment worthy of Netflix: behind-the-scenes emotion, fluid editing and impeccable technical quality.

Covering her retiring journalism teacher, student journalist Katie Burke wrote a deeply reported profile that rivals most stories in the professional press.

Consider this writing and remind yourself that this comes from a high school student:

“(Susan Massy) has driven suicidal teens through the streets of the city in the middle of the night, headed to nowhere-in-particular. She has held students and cried with them in the hospital immediately after the death of a parent. And she has sat on the floor and hugged a student who asked if she’d ever had a pregnant photo editor before.”

The maturity to cover these local stories is further tested when alleged crimes are involved. In November, a teacher at Mill Valley High School was arrested on charges of unlawful sexual relations with students. The student journalists stuck to the facts in their award-wining coverage.


More to read

My showcase here could stretch on and on. That’s the quality of these young reporters. To wrap the academic year, I offer you more reading below, arranged by topic:

Girls Wrestling: documenting a growing sport in Kansas

Women in sports: inequality and stereotypes

Busing: the difficulty in finding post-pandemic student transportation

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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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.