Scholastic Journalism Endangered in Chicago and Other Underresourced Districts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On November 1-4, 2018, the Journalism Education Association hosted its semiannual convention in Chicago. More than 6,000 student journalists and their advisers attended, including a cohort of Chicago Public Schools students and teachers sponsored by the Chicago Scholastic Press Association, an affiliate of Roosevelt University and longtime McCormick Foundation grantee. Sessions were standing room only and enlivened by enthusiastic student journalists. However, the lack of racial diversity among conference attendees was stunning, especially in a city where students of color compose 90% of CPS’ enrollment, not to mention a majority of K-12 students statewide.

Scholastic journalism is vital to the civic mission of our schools and serves as an important pipeline into the journalism profession, where people of color are also vastly underrepresented. The 2011 Scholastic Journalism Census produced by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State (OH) University found that schools with student media had an average minority population of 35%, while those without media programs are majority nonwhite (average of 56% students of color; see below). Similar inequities surface for schools serving a majority of students receiving free or reduced price lunch.

Kent State intends to replicate the study in 2019, and I fear that scholastic journalism has lost further ground in the intervening decade, particularly in urban schools. My analysis of CPS’ course enrollment numbers for journalism courses reveals that only 30.1% (28 of 93) district high schools offer a course in journalism, print and/ or broadcast. When yearbook is added, the percentage jumps to 39.8% (37 of 93 schools). Yet only 1,038 students enrolled in these courses during the 2017-2018 school year, less than 1% of CPS’ high school student body of 107,352.

It’s likely that some CPS schools offer student media as an extracurricular-only option. This is of course better than nothing, but there is significant drop-off in the percentage of students that participate in extracurricular activities. Participation is also highly inequitable by race, where white and Asian students are much more likely to participate in extracurricular activities than their Black and Latinx peers.

We must do more to strengthen, resuscitate, and/ or reimagine student media in urban and underresourced schools. Some promising efforts already underway include:
  • McCormick youth media grantees Free Spirit Media and Yollocalli Arts Reach partner with teachers at CPS schools and offer channels for public dissemination of student journalism.
  • Loyola University’s School of Communications works with Senn and Sullivan High Schools on Chicago’s North Side to operate a storefront news bureau reporting on hyper-local news in Rogers Park and Edgewater.
  • And Medill Media Teens brings together Northwestern undergraduate journalism majors and CPS high school students every Saturday at Medill’s downtown campus for a distinctive mentoring experience that focuses on journalism production and media awareness. Students receive extensive training on writing, reporting, and multimedia storytelling.
These pockets of excellence, alongside the 28 CPS schools with journalism courses, offer promise. The task before us is to achieve districtwide scale parallel to the success of CPS’ civic engagement initiative, and we have found a willing partner in the Office of Social Science and Civic Engagement. We’ll be sure to keep you apprised of our progress, and invite your support as we simultaneously seek to promote equitable youth civic development and a healthy, representative local media ecosystem.

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