Journalism education worthy of distinction


By Karen T. Braeckel
HSPA Foundation

Somewhere in the state’s educational wrangling lies an issue that seldom makes headlines. Yet for our industry and the public, it matters. Big time.

While we explore the best strategies to remain the most credible source of information in this digital age, we see talented students who love to write steer clear of journalism in high school – and not because they lack interest or worry about finding a job in the field.

They want to pad their grade point averages – and taking as many Advanced Placement courses as possible provides the best way. Guess which subject does not make the list.

In most high schools across the state, students who want to take journalism courses or work on their school newspaper know they will lose the opportunity to take a weighted course in its place.

The end result means a lower GPA than a student who chose an AP class.

Samantha Strong, a freshman studying journalism, bioethics and neuroscience at Indiana University, a Herman B. Wells Scholar through the university, an Ernie Pyle Scholar with the School of Journalism, and finalist in the 2013 Indiana Journalist of the Year competition, chose journalism in high school – even though it probably cost her the rank of valedictorian in her class.

Yet she views her choice as a victory – not a loss.

She explains the weighting dilemma in an article she wrote for the Indiana High School Press Association:

While the (Advanced Placement) program is great in terms of encouraging students to challenge themselves in the classroom and take more advanced courses, it is not great for subjects such as the arts and journalism.

Many students neglect such courses because they are not weighted and would bring down their GPAs, making students less competitive when it comes to class ranking. This is viewed as a detriment, deeming such courses unworthy of students’ times and effort. While these students may have slightly higher GPAs than their journalism and artistic counterparts, they have also stunted their growth in terms of professionalism, individual development and personal discovery.

These students overlooked one of my high school’s greatest opportunities, to become a member of a family; a family that cried together over missed deadlines; a family that giddily jumped up and down when it discovered they earned a Hoosier Star; a family that swells with pride with each printed byline.

This was my journalism family, and I would be nothing but a solid GPA without them. And such numbers rarely match the power of experience, love and discovery.

Well said!

But it does not have to be that way. Three Indiana high schools with excellent journalism programs – Carmel, Floyd Central and Munster – adopted weighted grades for journalism.

So why don’t other schools? They wait for the State Board of Education to determine which courses should make the Academic Honors Diploma list.

Currently journalism does not.

Diana Hadley, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association, wants that changed. After spending more than three decades in the classroom, she knows what involvement in a school publication can do for students.

Hadley says although they have no data to support it, those who taught both English and journalism as she did know from experience that students’ writing improves faster when they work on a publication staff.

Teachers see the difference that feedback from advisers, readers, fellow staff members can make as young writers work toward clarity of their messages.

In 2008 Jack Dvorak, Ph.D., then director of the High School Journalism Institute and a professor at the IU School of Journalism (now professor emeritus), conducted a study for the Newspaper Association of America Foundation.

He based his research on high-school GPAs and the ACT performance of 31,175 students attending or formerly attended colleges or universities in all 50 states and some foreign countries.

The study showed high school students with journalism experience earned higher scores than nonjournalism students in overall GPA, ACT Composite score, ACT English score and college freshman English grade and GPA.

They also had higher grades in high school math (I promise it says that despite popular opinion), social science, science and English courses than nonjournalism students. (They did not fare as well as their nonjournalism peers on ACT math scores. We knew that.)

So how can you help? Encourage the State Board of Education to add journalism to the list of Academic Honors Diploma courses through personal nudges and the power of the pen.

This simple and logical move will benefit schools, students and the informed young citizens they serve.

Personal note

The Braeckel family received an early Christmas present last week.

After battling pancreatic cancer for 11 months with everything the oncology team could throw at it – two types of aggressive chemo, major surgery and radiation – my husband, John, heard these words from his surgeon following a CT scan, “You are cancer-free!”

I don’t have enough column inches to give you the survival stats for this nasty disease. I’ll just thank you for your prayers and support. We witnessed a miracle.

Karen T. Braeckel is director of the HSPA Foundation. Her column runs in the second issue of each month.