ST. PETERSBURG — Fourth-grader Vermon Miller stood proudly against the wall at the Studio@620, below the photograph of a scene from a school playground. The photo he took. The photo selected by his teachers to be displayed as part of a real gallery exhibit.
The resourceful 10-year-old had jumped aboard a trolley ferrying families to and from his school to the downtown gallery, by himself. Planted firmly in front of his work, he raised a camera to record the events of the evening, the way any good journalist would.
Vermon is a student at Melrose Elementary, which has been home to the Center for Journalism and Multimedia since 2002, when the magnet program began as a result of a partnership between the Pinellas School District and the Tampa Bay Times. The program, led by the late Cynda Mort, won national awards as a one-of-a-kind elementary journalism magnet and was later expanded to John Hopkins Middle and Lakewood High schools, both of which have earned multiple accolades for producing the best scholastic journalism in the nation. All three schools are staffed with professionals who have journalism training and experience. For 11 years, student work has been given gallery space at the Studio@620.
Back at school, Vermon deserved his "Mighty Manatee" shout-out — the recognition named for the school's pudgy marine mammal mascot — during the principal's announcements. Though the school has struggled since the 2007 end of court-ordered desegregation, resulting in its population becoming almost exclusively black and poor and journalism taking a back seat to the pressure to bring up test scores, Melrose is positioned once again to be a mighty magnet school.
Double-digit gains in this year's student academic scores is a positive harbinger after a Times series shined an eye-opening spotlight on the steep academic decline of Melrose and four other St. Petersburg schools. Magnet programs including journalism provide the valuable opportunity for students to grow in tolerance and understanding of different cultures, but without a desegregation mandate, busing required for integration stopped and the magnets' virtues were overshadowed by an overwhelming concentration of students with complex needs. Poverty, unstable family lives and other traumas such as chronic hunger, homelessness or even having witnessed neighborhood shootings are factors that can make learning difficult, at best. Magnify that challenge when half a classroom or more suffers these experiences.
Melrose has also suffered from the misconception that journalism is no longer a relevant pursuit. "Print newspapers are failing," a tired trope that overlooks the importance of journalism's fundamental role in informing citizens no matter what the evolving platform, unfairly tarnishes the desirability of the magnet choice, compared with more positively perceived programs such as the arts and STEM.
Despite these hurdles, Melrose's improved scores are just one reason for optimism. In an effort to better examine and implement the best ways to meet students' needs that might include more one-on-one instruction, more family engagement and special behavioral programs, the Pinellas school district hired Tennessee turnaround leader Antonio Burt to oversee improvements at Melrose and the other struggling schools. Burt helped recruit a new principal for Melrose, Nikita Reed, a colleague from his state. Both have expressed commitment to journalism as a tool to help students succeed.
Construction of a new facility for Melrose, which will accommodate all neighborhood students as well as more who apply specifically because of the magnet program, is on the district's priority list. Perhaps the most heartening news is that for the first time in years, families outside Melrose's zone have applied for and accepted invitations for 2016-17 to send their children to the journalism magnet, where they will benefit from engaging curriculum that builds confidence and life skills.
At Melrose, all students in grades K through 5 receive journalism instruction, including its digital evolution. They start out learning journalism's basics, the five Ws — who, what, where, when and why — and how the answers to those questions lead to a fuller understanding of life. Later, they line up to conduct news conferences, excited to ask questions of their principal, or the mayor, or the police chief and to report their answers in print and online, as stories and blog posts. They bravely phone sources they don't know for important interviews. They take photos and videos of their school and larger communities, observing and telling stories that include the personal, such as how it is comforting for one student to sit in the same church pew his "auntie-in-law" used to, before she was killed on her way home. "I was mad. I was sad. I was sad and mad at the same time," the fifth-grader wrote.
As it did in its earliest years under Mort, with intentional incorporation of journalism concepts and values in all subject areas and even test preparation, as well as family engagement opportunities that connect adults to what their children are learning, Melrose's journalism program can make a positive impact on them and society. Journalism and its many multimedia incarnations teach students to be curious, be comfortable looking people in the eye, ask thoughtful questions, communicate clearly in words and visuals, and treat others fairly. A key result is also the students' confidence, buoyed by the thrill of having their work published in print and online. Far from a dying art, journalism arms students with successes that make them better equipped to improve their reading and writing skills and helps them succeed no matter where life takes them.
There is hope for the Melrose journalism magnet to be mighty again, giving more students like Vermon Miller the priceless chance to be proud of their work, and of themselves.
Gretchen Letterman, a journalist who retired after 31 years at the Tampa Bay Times, became Pinellas County Schools' journalism program coordinator in September. After volunteering with the program from its start, she now oversees the Melrose Elementary and John Hopkins Middle journalism magnets and the Lakewood High journalism career academy, collectively known as Journeys in Journalism.