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Tampa Bay Times' Newspaper in Education program serves more than 400,000 Florida students

Donald Whitaker peruses the Tampa Bay Times looking for ways to engage students in civics lessons at Inverness Middle School in Citrus County.

Jennifer Kious spends the first 10 minutes of class asking journalism students to identify stories they should be covering for the Durant High School newspaper in Plant City.

Linda Cox urges art students at Cannella Elementary School in Hillsborough County to critique the daily comics pages.

And Brenda Curtwright, a speech language pathologist in Pasco County, uses the Times to help students overcome language impairments.

All four local educators have this in common: They have been honored by the Times for incorporating the news at school through our Newspaper in Education program.

Whitaker is the 2019 Newspaper in Education teacher of the year. Kious, Cox and Curtwright earned honorable mention at an awards ceremony in Tampa earlier this month.

For more than 40 years, the Times has been sending newspapers into the classroom. While scores of news organizations across the country have abandoned their Newspaper in Education programs, ours remains vibrant. It's easily the largest program of its kind in Florida, according to program coordinator Jodi B. Pushkin.

We view it as a vitally important way to serve our community.

Last year, the Times provided more than 1.5 million print newspapers and more than 10 million digital editions to schools throughout the Tampa Bay region — at no cost to the schools, the teachers, the students or their families. The program serves public, private, charter, home and alternative schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Manatee counties.

The raw numbers are astounding:

• 546 Tampa Bay-area schools participate in the program.

• 1,585 teachers use the Times in class.

• More that 400,000 students gain access to the newspaper or digital edition each year.

At the awards ceremony held at the Hillsborough Education Foundation, I was inspired hearing teachers speak about how they inject our daily journalism into their lesson plans. And I was struck by the show of support from principals and school board members who proudly cheered them on. Truth be told, I showed up at the ceremony thinking I'd shake a few hands, mingle a bit and make an early exit after a long day at the office. But I found myself captivated listening to each and every testimonial. The fact that we were recognizing their terrific work meant the world to these educators.

And it means a great deal to us.

In an interview later, teacher of the year Whitaker told me that the newspaper gets his students excited in ways that textbooks and lectures can't. It's about interactivity and engagement, he said. Real life plays out through the news pages.

"Most of the kids, even those that struggle reading, they are a lot more excited about the newspaper," said Whitaker, 30. "They don't see it as another worksheet. They see it as something that's actually happening. It opens up the world to my students."

Over the course of the year, about 130 seventh-graders will encounter the news inside Whitaker's classroom. The Times is stacked neatly on the bookshelf — right next to the pencil sharpener and the civics textbook Gateway to American Government.

None of this could happen without you. Our readers contribute nearly $300,000 annually to the program. A host of corporate sponsors and community grants inject an additional $160,000. And an annual auction helps raise about $10,000, Pushkin said.

"The newspaper especially, one like the Times, makes it easier to bring civics into the context of today's society with what's going on in the world," Whitaker said. "It breeds questioning. It encourages them to question what they know, and it encourages them to question what they believe."

Whitaker grew up in a family that talked about the news at the breakfast table.

Sadly, that's become something of a lost art in many corners of our world. This program helps keep it alive for the next generation.

Contact Mark Katches at