Bear River High School students, previous administrator earn awards for journalism work
If someone weren’t fully aware, they would be forgiven for believing they were in a newsroom.
Computers sit on square desks, opposite each other in long rows. A banner of the The Current newspaper overlooks a poster of the film “All The President’s Men.” Newspaper clippings abound surrounding individuals who type quietly, or chat about stories they need to publish by deadline.
But this room is not quite as it seems: it’s a Bear River High School classroom for journalism students.
In the past few years, Bear River students have lived up to their tasks, receiving a series of journalism awards. At a 2018 national competition, students Sonora Slater, McKenna Hisaw and Josh Howser won awards for news writing, photography and sports writing, respectively.
In 2019, the accolades continued.
Slater was selected to represent California students at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington, D.C., last summer. In Anaheim, then-junior Zach Fink won a first place medal at a national high school journalism convention for his photograph. Then-junior Slater and then-junior Catherine Desplancke earned honorable mentions for their news and sports writing.
But it’s not just students who have racked up awards.
Former Bear River Principal Amy Besler won the 2019 Administrator of the Year Award from the Journalism Education Association in August and will be going to Washington, D.C., to accept the award in November. As part of the award, $1,000 will help fund Bear River’s journalism program.
Bear River’s journalism teacher, Christina Levinson, credits Besler — who now works in Elk Grove — for facilitating the program’s success.
“She was so completely thoughtful and progressive about her approach to student media,” said Levinson, who previously worked as a journalist at the Sacramento Bee. “She never ignored my kids, she never tried to censor them.”
The sentiment was reciprocated.
Besler said one of her best decisions was hiring Levinson.
“Her classroom really feels like a newsroom,” she said.
In mid-October, Levinson was discussing the lead-up to former President Richard Nixon’s resignation. She tossed in journalism terms like “boiling the frog” (probing an interviewee with softball questions before delving into contentious topics) while providing a possible explanation for the cause of Nixon’s malfeasance. Her goal was clear: to immerse her students in the world of journalism.
Bear River’s journalism program now has its own career technical education pathway and allows students the opportunity to engage in writing, interviewing and investigating.
“When there are problems at the school, the kids see these problems,” said Levinson, adding that it’s their First Amendment right to cover them.
Although journalism is no longer as profitable as it was in previous decades, and has become somewhat mired in controversy regarding bias, Levinson explains that it’s a critical profession, promoting transparency, justice and allowing individuals to speak truth to power.
“I think journalism is more important than it’s ever been,” she said.
At the 2019 Anaheim competition, student journalists had to capture the “depression of the soul” in a photo. Then-junior Fink did something unique — he left the convention grounds to find his shot in Los Angeles. From a taxi, he saw a colorfully-dressed woman that he — and the judges — believed captured the theme.
“He would hang from the rafters if it would get him a good shot,” said Levinson.
Fink imagines the world through photography and enjoys sharing it through the same medium.
“You can take a photo of what you’re seeing and manipulate it in different ways, in different lighting so the rest of the world can see it in different views,” he said.
Fink’s peer Slater, who will facilitate an online student newspaper at Clear Creek Elementary School, has had some inspiration for her work: both her parents previously worked in journalism.
After graduating, she hopes to major in biology or chemistry in college before working as an environmental reporter.
“I love to use the knowledge of science to learn something,” she said.
The senior is passionate about neutral reporting, and has helped her newspaper cover everything from school walkouts, to gun violence protests and issues with Bear River faculty.
Last year, The Current reported on a teacher who went missing. The teacher later received a misdemeanor sentence for domestic abuse. He didn’t return to Bear River.
“‘Even though my child is kind of mad about this, I’m really grateful for the story,’” one parent told Slater.
It’s these sort of stories that Besler believes students should be able to cover.
“I think that a lot of school administrators are afraid, to some degree, of student voice,” she said.
Slater said the Bear River program has had success because of Besler’s support and Levinson’s experience.
“She’s not just a teacher, she is a journalist,” said Slater. Critically, Slater said Levinson leaves most decisions to her students. “Her big focus is on it being entirely student run.”
Senior Scout Pettitt agreed.
“(Levinson) knows how to write a story, knows what we need to know and teaches us to the best of her ability,” she said.
“It’s such an important thing for young people to be able to develop that agency,” she said, “and to have a voice and to know how to use it in a way that’s going to be impactful.”
In April, the class will be going to Nashville, Tennessee, for a national high school journalism convention. It will be another opportunity for students to demonstrate their award winning work.
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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