Guest Column: Letter from a concerned former District 205 student

January 5, 2011

By James A. Gardner

To whom it may concern:

My name is James Gardner, and I am currently a German studies and history double major at the Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. I graduated from Rockford East High School in May 2009. The proposition to combat financial issues by slashing certain classes for credit has been brought to my attention. Such a procedure is not unexpected in a financial crisis; however, the significance of this proposition is a cause for deep concern. The ramifications of this decision will not only have a deep impact on the life skills granted by programs such as the publications programs at all four high schools, but it will also have a foreseeable and negative effect on so many students’ futures as well.

The proposition to eliminate the classroom aspect of some activities is appalling and hair-raising, as it will turn the activities solely into extra-curricular, thereby depriving students of the ability to acquire writing, communication and management skills inside of the classroom. It will also take away experiences, relationships and career opportunities that are possible.

It is a fact that most, if not all, academic institutions find themselves at one point within stressful financial situations. The goal of the institution is then to resolve the matter while inflicting the least amount of harm on those within its system, be it students or faculty and staff, not to make an attempt at a resolution through unprovoked and unwarranted punishment. Revoking the access to an academic program like publications is an extreme measure that should, if it is to be considered at all, be at the very end of the list of possible courses of action to be taken for the following reasons.

Reduction in participation and quality

What keeps most students in school, excluding the legal obligations and police presence, is the ability to participate in things they find pleasure in doing within their academic regime. If publications merely existed as an extracurricular activity, the quality of yearbooks and newspapers would not be of the same caliber, as students would no longer operate under the pressure of being graded. In the classroom, students are surrounded by others interested in pursuing publications in the future rather than by uninterested students. This will also have a negative impact on how much the students are able to take from the publications; not only will it take away the instructional aspect acquired through the news writing class, it will not actually teach students about journalism. This will decrease the number of students, like myself, who have taken a class in the publications department and pursued a job or career in journalism, as they would not have been prepared for it in a progressive and instructional manner. Also, due to the number of extracurricular activities, including sports, which occur after school hours, those highly active students who would really benefit from a publications class would not be given the opportunity to take it due to their conflicting schedules. This will reduce participation and ultimately lead to the destruction of an asset to our student body. Not only is the application rate for the publication classes extremely high, the paper has an extraordinary number of readers who learn of what is happening in the school through the newspaper.

Deprivation of skills, experiences and opportunities

Students spend quite a lot of time participating in athletics and clubs, but it is really within the classroom where they learn skills to assist them later on in life, especially in college. Publications allow them to make social connections with teachers and other students inside of the structured classroom environment where their work is graded and evaluated for quality. This assists those students who plan to continue in careers, especially journalism, to learn the skills they will utilize later, such as time management, the ability to interview and communicate with strangers, and write creatively. During my senior year at East, most publications students participated in publications competitions against other publications programs across our region, which allowed us to formally test our specific newspaper skills against those of students in the region. The experience and the teamwork showed us what the journalism world expected of us and motivated us to work harder, learn more, and push ourselves to be the best in our fields of publications.

In addition, through my work at the Wesleyan University Admissions Office, where I work closely with admission deans, I have come to realize the importance of a well-rounded education in the eyes of the highly-selective admissions institutions for higher education. In the Admissions Office, I am a tour guide and also coordinate a program that puts me in direct contact with prospective students and with those who read their applications. Wesleyan, as a highly-selective university, tends to admit students active in their academia, in their community, and in their school through activities such as school newspaper and yearbook. I have heard it from several deans as well as seen it in action as I coordinated the program last year and watched as most of the students who I predicted would get in are indeed admitted to Wesleyan. This is also reflected in the awarding of scholarships, matriculation, and financial aid for most colleges. It is no coincidence that many of the students at the top of my 2009 graduating class were in at least one publication class with me at East. To deny anyone the opportunity to reach academic success is shameful and disheartening.

The organizational, communication and other life skills, experiences and relationships that I gained from studying the publications department are passed on to underclassmen in the years following my graduation, and I would loathe to see them not passed on to the next generation of students as well. While writing supplementary essays for our colleges, most of us utilized the writing skills we picked up from those classes. We were taught how to manage time, how to find the most important facts, and how to craft an article in a way to make people interested in what is written. Several students who worked on the newspaper with me are now pursuing careers in journalism or, like me, utilizing these skills in college. In addition to my Admissions job, I am also head copy editor of the Wesleyan Argus newspaper, where I make more than $11 an hour editing the newspaper, something I learned to love while doing the same job for East’s newspaper. I surprise my editors-in-chief constantly with my knowledge of layout and the computer technology we were taught in newspaper class. I was even sent as a journalist on an assignment to Washington, D.C., to cover the National Equality March, completely free of charge, where I applied all of the journalism skills I was taught in publications classes at East.

I am obviously not an experienced educator trained to handle students, a financial expert to handle budgets, or a politician to handle district policies, but I am an adamant observer and also an inquisitive journalist at heart. I raise this question: is this really the only available method to handle financial issues? Yes, the district will save money by cutting publications, but at what cost to students? If anything, I would expect District 205 to fight using everything within its power to preserve the publications department as a means of success for students, not use them as a temporary band-aid on the issue. The students, the teachers, the faculty, the parents, and the community should have a say in this issue. It seems obvious to even a sophomore in college that it is important for any community to make decisions together and open discussion and debate for anything that would affect the community as a whole. I hope this letter motivates such action.

James Gardner is a 2009 East High School graduate and a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., scheduled to graduate in 2013.

From the Jan. 5-11, 2011 issue

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