Guest Column: District 205 journalism courses must be offered for credit

Editor’s note: The following letter was sent by Barbara O. Erickson, Journalism Education Association mentor and retired teacher/adviser of Rockford Jefferson High School Publications, to Rockford Public School District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield.

November 19, 2010

Dear Dr. Sheffield:

I am writing this letter to express my horror at the possibility that you and the Rockford School District are considering dismantling the journalism programs at our high schools by eliminating all publication course offerings for credit.

Over the years, publications at all four high schools, both the yearbook and newspaper, have consistently brought visible evidence of positive recognition to the Rockford Public School District No. 205. The Jefferson program was modeled after the East High program, which for many, many years, set the standard for quality journalism in the entire NW Illinois area. Other area journalism programs have modeled theirs after Rockford’s, including Belvidere’s and Belvidere North’s.

On May 17, 2007, at an RPS No. 205 Board meeting, I received a Distinguished Service Award from the Rockford Public School District No. 205 in recognition of dedication and service to the Rockford Public Schools. This award was presented because my Jefferson High School Publications Team had just won the Illinois High School Association’s Journalism State Championship in April. My J-Hawk students placed first out of 90 high schools. The positive recognition and enhancement of the RPS No. 205 image from this accomplishment came on four levels: within the building, within the community, within the state, and finally, within the nation. All forms of media covered this victory: from students appearing on local television and radio to widespread newspaper coverage, both locally, in Chicago, and at the state and national levels.

In June 2007, two days after I retired from teaching and advising publications for 15 years (34 years total), I helped lead a district-wide professional development seminar where a committee of publication advisers, the English Curriculum Coordinator, and the RPS No. 205 Chief Instructional Officer, created a rigorous curriculum for all three journalism courses: Newswriting/Beginning Journalism, Yearbook and Newspaper. Our high expectations drove instruction for all students. We made sure these publication courses provide real-world experiences and opportunities. The first-year course, Newswriting/Beginning Journalism, covers the basics of the many parts of journalism, including actually publishing a Beginning Journalism issue of the newspaper. The two advanced courses encourage and necessitate even more depth of thought. Since these publications use the industry standard in technology (hardware and software), they require higher level thinking skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century. Since these unique student-created publications are actually viewed by the public, a deep understanding of procedure, press law, and journalistic principles and ethics are not only stressed, but essential. Good writing is emphasized as the basis for all journalism. Educationally, communications, public relations, and advertising are also major parts of any journalism/publications curriculum at any level. Furthermore, all three classes are taught incorporating principles of graphic design, which is an up-and-coming career path in today’s global society as well as utilizing computer skills that are integral to the Internet and digital age. Since our pub classes are performance based on real life experience, students learn to connect with not only students and adults in their own school, but build bridges with professionals and businesses to improve the image of RPS No. 205 in the community by interviewing, reporting and fundraising, selling both yearbooks and ads, as well as distributing newspapers. Life skills such as time management, prioritizing, balancing finances, and developing/exhibiting leadership qualities while teaming with a diverse staff are essential in meeting real deadlines and budgets in these courses. Since there are so many facets of journalism, students of all abilities, talents and levels of interest have the opportunity to find their niche.

According to the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, a 2008 study by Jack Dvorak of Indiana University found a positive link exists between journalism programs and elevated standardized test scores as well as academic performance. Students who participate in journalism programs have significantly higher scores than non-staff members in 12 of 14 areas of academic comparison: college freshman GPA; first college freshman English, overall high school GPA; high school grades in English, math, social science, science, foreign language and art; and ACT Composite score, ACT English score and ACT reading score. Non-journalism students perform significantly better than newspaper or yearbook staff members in only two of the areas of academic comparison—ACT Mathematics score and ACT Science score. Students with journalism course experience scored higher percentiles on the ACT than non-journalists:

→ High school journalism staffers scored in the 64th percentile on the ACT Composite compared with scores in the 56th percentile for non-journalism students.

→ In the ACT English scores, student journalists finished in the 65th percentile compared with the 59th percentile for non-journalists.

→ On the ACT Reading test, student journalists scored in the 59th percentile (compared with the 56th percentile for non-journalists). (

Finally, the RPS No. 205 publication programs at Jefferson, East and Guilford are self-supporting. I am not sure about Auburn. The financial basis for almost all publishing is sales and advertising. Since programs/advisers do not receive building budget money or downtown financial aid to subsidize either the yearbook or the newspaper (which costs several hundred dollars an issue, but is free to all), they have had to find many ways to pay for each publication each year. Teachers and their staffs constantly fund-raise to meet their obligations.

The benefits of these publication programs are numerous. Besides the obvious benefits as a public relations tool for RPS No. 205, countless former well-prepared students are in the journalism field today. Former J-Hawks, E-Rabs, Vikings and Knights are in many journalism-related occupations: from television reporters, weathermen, news assignment editors and videographers, to newspaper editors, reporters, designers and head photographers, to magazine reporters and designers, to advertising and marketing consultants, to online/web reporters and designers, to journalism teachers. Those students who do not choose to continue in journalism benefit from the life skills and knowledge they have had to learn and utilize. The classes have touched former students’ lives in such a way that whether they continued in a journalistic profession or not, it is tragic to think what opportunities and experiences they would have missed out on. My 2007 J-Hawks wouldn’t have been part of a state championship, you might not be watching Aaron Wilson deliver the morning weather on WIFR-TV, there wouldn’t be an E-Rab graduate being paid as a copy editor on his college newspaper right now, and there wouldn’t be dozens of Rockford Public Schools’ students using their knowledge of journalistic integrity to better the field of journalism. These are just four examples out of hundreds.

I am currently working for the Journalism Education Association as one of three mentors from the state of Illinois helping new journalism teachers succeed. I have been enthused about the future of the journalism programs in RPS No. 205 because we have some bright young teachers who are doing wonderful jobs with our students. In the last three years, in my capacity as a mentor, I have attended the IHSA Journalism State Meet, where I have watched with pride as 26 students representing RPS No. 205 have qualified for the contest, demonstrating the excellence of our journalism programs.

The losses are also substantial if the district chooses to eliminate its journalism courses for credit. In a time where the community is clamoring for more technically prepared graduates, classes where there is actual, tangible evidence that students are prepared for careers will be taken out of the curriculum. If only offered as an after-school activity, students will find the time commitment to create quality publications enormous. Advisers will not have the 176 hours of time to teach the students how to create the publications properly. The focus will change from teaching quality journalism to just surviving to get the publication printed. The size and frequency of the publications as well as the quality will suffer. Athletes and other students will have to choose between their sports or other clubs or working on publications. Those who have jobs will have little time or chance to participate. The numbers of involved students will be decimated. Too many students’ opportunities to experience these realistic life skills classes will be eliminated, not enhanced. Test scores could be lowered. Students would no longer be prepared adequately enough to compete against the best journalism programs in the state so they would not have the opportunity to reach the State Meet. Finally, the Rockford Public Schools will lose one of its most successfully prominent, visible vehicles for learning.

This is my hope for our students: I hope you decide that our students deserve to have the best education possible, and that includes keeping our journalism programs as they are, offered as courses for credit within the RPS No. 205 curriculum.


Barbara O. Erickson, Journalism Education Association Mentor and Retired Teacher/Adviser Jefferson HS Publications

cc: Tracy Stevenson-Olson, RPS No. 205 Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Earl Hernandez, RPS No. 205 Chief Executive Director of Schools

Mark Wallace, RPS No. 205 Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Larry J. Morrissey, City of Rockford Mayor

Linda Grist Cunningham, Executive Editor of the Rockford Register Star

Frank Schier, Editor and Publisher of The Rock River Times

John Chadwick, Vice President and General Manager of WREX-TV

Dave Smith, News Director of WIFR-TV

Eileen Boucek, Station Manager of WTVO-TV

Dr. Gary Burns, Northern Illinois University Chairman of Media Studies

Jack J. Becherer, Rock Valley College President

Dr. Robert Head, Rockford College President

Molly Phalen, Rockford Education Association President

Karen Bieschke, Rockford Education Association Vice President

Lisa Jackson, RPS No. 205 Board Member

Jeanne Westholder, RPS No. 205 Board Member

Alice Saudargas, RPS No. 205 Board Member

Jude Makulec, RPS No. 205 Board Member

Robert Evans, RPS No. 205 Board Member

Harmon Mitchell, RPS No. 205 Board Member

David Kelley, RPS No. 205 Board Member

Dr. Kye Gaffey, Auburn High School Principal

Todd France, East High School Principal

Jill K. Davis, Guilford High School Principal

Donald Rundall, Jefferson High School Principal

From the Nov. 24-30, 2010 issue

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