Monday, October 31, 2011

Performance Variability in Student Newspapers

by Joseph Hawkins

For those following MCPS Superintendent Josh Starr’s Listen and Learn events, they know he constantly mentions “performance variability.” Here he is talking to high school journalists about it.

In the above Whitman High Black and White student newspaper article, Starr notes the following about MCPS: “This is a wonderful system, but there are differences between schools in performance and accessibility,” Starr said, citing variability as his greatest concern. “Not every school should look and be exactly the same, but there needs to be excellence in terms of performance.”

Well, excellence has a funny way of displaying itself in both small and large ways. I happen to think the small ways frequently reveal a school’s commitment to excellence. So, take something, for example, as small and simple as student run high school newspapers. Within MCPS, there appears to be lots of performance variability, and the variability seems related to geography.

(Note: For those unfamiliar with MCPS geography, former MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast divided up the county geography into two zones—one green and the other red. Green zone schools are located in affluent Montgomery County neighborhoods and communities. Red zone schools are located in Montgomery County in poor neighborhoods and communities. To date, Starr has not signaled a move away from the zone concept so referring to schools as either green or red is still fair game.)

Specifically, green zone high school newspapers seem current, active—almost energetic.  Nearly all of these student newspapers have their own dedicated website and a serious online presence. Whitman’s Black and White ( and B-CC’s Tattler ( are certainly different—“not exactly the same,” as Starr points out—yet they both process a certain professional—almost lively—vibe.

With one notable exception—Blair’s award winning Silver Chips (, red zone high school newspapers seem controlled and pedestrian, and this is assuming you can even find a recent copy online. I could find no online presence for Wheaton, Einstein, Northwood, or Kennedy high schools. Springbrook’s Blueprint is online but one finds links to articles from 2008. In fact, the homepage of the Blueprint notes that it was last updated on Monday, November 17, 2008.  And the Blueprint website appears to be an off-the-shelf template—not a website designed by students.

I have never considered myself a journalist or an expert in journalism. Nonetheless, I wrote a newspaper (the old Montgomery Journal) column for more than 7 years and worked as a writer for a year at a magazine. So, I think I get what newspaper “excellence” ought to look like. And yet within MCPS, not all student journalists seem to get the same opportunity to excel. Excelling seems related to where one lives. It should not be that way.


  1. Why don't you volunteer to lead a newspaper at one of the red zone high schools?

  2. Volunteer to lead a newspaper in a red zone high school? I wish I had the extra time to do so but I don't. However, I feel pretty good about my own history of volunteering. If God is using volunteering as one way to get into heaven, I’m in. My history of volunteering: boy scout reading tutor, college prison reading tutor, Peace Corps volunteer, graduate school reading tutor, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, Montgomery County Child Care Commission (commissioner), Montgomery County Hate/Violence Committee (committee member), and Montgomery County Mental Health Association (founding member of Voices vs. Violence). Joseph Hawkins

  3. Anon: The high school newspapers are produced by the journalism classes. The journalism classes are taught by teachers, just like the art classes, the music classes, the English classes, the science classes, and so forth.

    Would you expect volunteers to teach the journalism class?

  4. I would not expect volunteers to teach these classes. I doubt MCPS would allow such. However, I doubt that any high school worth its salt would turn away eager volunteers.

  5. Not every MCPS high school offers all journalism classes. There's some more variability.

  6. Anonymous, do you know why there is such "variability?" who decides? Carver? the principals? the teachers? And as Mr. Hawkins points out, the "variability" is not random. If it is just "variability" and different schools across the county offered somewhat different curricula, it would be random.

  7. As a Blueprint staff member I must insist that before you talk badly about Springbrook's Blueprint you make sure that what you are posting is true. Had you done a little more research, like a true journalist, you would have realized that the website you were looking at is an old version of our website, and that we do in fact have a more advanced and certainly more recent version of the website. A retraction is very appropriate in this situation.

  8. As Springbrook students and Blueprint staff writers and editors, we were offended by the misrepresentation of the newspaper in this post. The Blueprint staff posts directly to the Springbrook website at The website’s content includes online exclusives and is updated every Friday with three featured articles. The most recent print edition is also linked. The 2008 issue you would have found is from the template used when the Blueprint first launched issues online in 2008. Students are required to complete a year-long journalism course before enrolling in the advanced journalism class which produces the Blueprint. The Blueprint was the only newspaper in Montgomery County that came out every other week until 2004, when it switched to once a month for financial reasons. As for quality, the Blueprint earned the Columbia Scholastic Press Association gold medal the past two years. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says that it is a journalist’s responsibility to seek the truth and report it. Please try to adhere to this code the next time you write a post.
    CJ Simon (Opinion Editor)
    Jenelle Whitman (Editor in Chief)
    Hannah Dario (Managing Editor)
    Nandini Kishore (Assistant Editor)
    Maddy Kim (Assistant Editor)
    Faven Mesfin (Senior News Editor)
    Victoria Rozario (Photography Editor)
    Naveena Ashok (News Editor)
    Meredith Blair (News Editor)
    Aida Martinez (Sports Editor)
    Vignesh Sankar (Sports Editor)
    Ram Natarajan (Opinion Editor)
    Colette Colburn (Feature Editor)
    Michael Nguyen (Feature Editor)
    Destiny Wagner (Staff Writer)
    Arielle Welch (Staff Writer)
    Chris Choppin (Staff Writer)
    Travis Bauer (Staff Writer)
    Braedon Tock (Staff Writer)

  9. As a Blueprint staff writer, as well as someone with knowledge of the demographics of Montgomery County, I am offended and shocked at your comments towards high school newspapers. Before you criticize the online presence of the Blueprint, please make sure you’re up to date on where we stand. The Blueprint currently runs an up to date online website, which is updated every Friday afternoon, and includes current and interesting features. Your comments concerning the quality of newspapers dropping as more minorities attend a school were as subtle as a gun, unfounded and a shot at all students attending “red zone” schools. Your time in the journalism field is extensive, but does not give you any room to take shots at adolescents trying in earnest to create a newspaper for their peers. Since you are an MCPS parent, it should be your duty to SUPPORT improvement, not try to hinder it with negative comments. Many “red zone” newspapers may not be up to your standards simply because of lack of funds, which is out of student control. Most recently, the Blueprint has won the CSPA Gold Medal for excellence in high school newspapers, while being funded far less than other newspapers. The Blueprint has a resume to speak for itself, and we kindly await your apology.
    -Travis Bauer, Blueprint Staff Writer

  10. "lack of funds, which is out of student control"

    On the contrary, students have a dedicated student Board of Education member! You have a voice at the Board of Education table! Each Board meeting and at at other times of the year the Board takes public comment. Have you all participated in the process?

    How are school newspapers funded? If there is a problem with that model, how can funding be fixed so that all MCPS high school newspapers can be on equal footing? I believe that was the point of Mr. Hawkins piece.

    Why do students sit by while administrators are out eating lunch and charging those meals to the MCPS Operating Budget? Add in the many, many conferences that administrators attend all year long. Don't you think those dollars should go to students and not meals and travel for administrators? Every dollar counts.

    MCPS is one countywide public school system with a $2.1 (+/-) billion budget. No reason for school newspapers to not have adequate funding.

    Time for some investigative journalism, don't you think?

  11. Blueprint staff, have you reported on this 2010 Springbrook HS Audit and how student funds were being handled at the school? Is your paper tracking how student funds are accounted for at the school and if they are being used to benefit students as required by Board of Education Policy?

    "At Springbrook High School (Principal during reporting period: Mr. Michael Durso), student funds in the amount of $35,778 were used to purchase a basketball scoreboard without obtaining required approval from the Board of Education. The auditors note that purchases over $25,000 require approval from the Board of Education. In addition, a personal loan to an employee was made from the IAF, a practice that the auditors point out is prohibited."

  12. To Janis Sartucci. That money was a gift from a parent whose son was on our basketball team. So the funds were not taken from our educational uses and they were not used in a fraudulent manner as you made it seem.

  13. Travis: Thank you for your comments.

    You said "Many 'red zone' newspapers may not be up to your standards simply because of lack of funds, which is out of student control."

    Does the Blueprint have less funding than newspapers in the 'green zone'? If so, can you tell us why? Is the funding for school newspapers provided by the school, or do the students have to rely on outside funding to produce the newspaper?

  14. To Anonymous 5:01

    Sorry, those are the words from a MCPS Audit (written by the MCPS auditor) of student funds at Springbrook. Did you read the Audit?

    If the transaction was on the up and up, why wasn't MCPS Policy followed?

    So bottom line is, prove it. Show the paper trail and show the policies being followed. That shouldn't be a problem.

    It is schools taking cash on the side that creates disparities. If the transactions aren't reported, then there is no oversight.

  15. Here is the 2008 Springbrook IAF Audit:

  16. Mr. Wilen, the Blueprint does have less funding than other schools in the “green zone”. The Blueprint’s entire operating budget comes from patron donations, advertisements, and fundraisers. While many parents and community members in “green zone” schools are able to make very generous contributions, much of the Springbrook community simply does not have that option. The state of the economy has also taken a toll on the success of fundraisers and the amount of advertisements.

  17. I did miss the Blueprint's other website. So, I apologize for that oversight. Nonetheless, a simple google seach takes you to your older website, here:

    If this website is not your true newspaper than take it down from the web.

    And when it comes to having less money, perhaps you should do more to "press" your School Board. Maybe it is time for some good old fashion "Occupy Wall Street" tactics right here in MoCo. You'd be amazed at how much money our elected officials waste--that is money that could be better spent on the Blueprint.

  18. Anon of 6:52 AM: Your reply shocked me. Isn't the Blueprint produced by the Journalism class? And if so, why doesn't MCPS adequately fund the Journalism class? MCPS pays for the chemicals for science classes. Why are students required to find funding for the Journalism class?

    The only cost should be printing the newspaper. The Journalism staff isn't paid, and putting the newspaper online is free.

    How much funding is really needed and exactly what does the funding pay for?

  19. Cost to print 2,000 copies of a 12 page issue with color on the front and back covers and the center spread is approximately $975. Printing eight issues per school year creates an operating budget of approximately $7,800. These funds are generated by sales of advertisements, fundraising and patron donations only. Given that our school is in the "red zone" our revenue from these efforts is probably much less than our "green zone" counterparts. Not to mention the fact that as part of the northeast consortium, we battle two other schools for community ads and support.

    Also, please keep in mind that the intention of the original response to this post was in defense of the quality and online presence of The Blueprint, not the use of school funds, which seems to be another topic altogether.

    Wendy Borrelli
    Blueprint Adviser
    Springbrook High School

  20. Ms. Borrelli,

    Thanks so much for this information. Your answer seems to be that MCPS gives $0 to support journalism classes that produce school newspapers, correct?

    Also, please note the funding issue was specifically brought up by the student response.

  21. Ms. Borelli,

    Adding to Janis' most recent comment (above), the level of funding should not have any effect on the editorial quality of the newspaper. If your class had no funding (for printing) at all, the students should still be able to produce a newspaper of equivalent quality to that of the 'green zone' schools, even if they are able to distribute it only through a web site.

    But setting aside any differences in quality, shouldn't MCPS be funding the journalism classes at all high schools? Is it fair to your students that 'green zone' high schools have ample resources to support their journalism classes, while your students must struggle to fund the journalism classes?

  22. "The students should still be able to produce a newspaper of equivalent quality to that of the 'green zone' schools."

    Yes, they should be able to do so...and they DO, as is evidenced by own winning of the CSPA gold medal. Please read our most recent issue and then draw conclusions as to the quality of Springbrook's paper.

    Wendy Borrelli

    The financial restraints only limit the amount of issues printed, the length of issues printed and the amount of color pages in each issue.

  23. Back several issues, Bethesda Magazine examined differences in budgets for sports between green and red zone high schools. Their cover story revealed that green zone high schools have way more cash than do their red zone counterparts. I would suspect that we would find the same kind of differences in other extracurricular activities. One can read the Bethesda Magazine article online here:

    But if the differences are real, and I think they are (this is an issue student journalists might investigate and write about), why not focus attention and efforts on decision-makers who we elect and appoint, and demand that these individuals "fix" the inequalities. I happen to think there are working solutions. For example, tax the green zone PTAs that are capable of raising larger cash sums than are red zone PTAs. Pool the taxed cash and distribute it to the poorer red zone schools. All this takes is elected officials with backbone.

  24. Ms. Borrelli:

    Now that we know where to find the current issues of The Blueprint, we'll certainly take another look. For that matter, you and your students can expect to see more blog articles that compare high school newspapers throughout Montgomery County.

    You and your students have set the record straight for Springbrook, but what is still not clear is why the quality of high school newspapers varies so much amongst many other schools.

    And while several schools have published two or more issues this school year, at least one 'red zone' school's journalism class has published nothing at all this school year. Even if they have no funding, they should still have been able to publish their newspaper on a web site.

  25. Why does the quality of the newspaper differ from school to school? Pick any sport in Montgomery County and you'll see differences in performance. Why? Some teams have better athletes and/or coaches. Just like some schools likely have better writers on their news paper staff than others or some schools have better actors/actresses than others.

    End result is a great deal of variability in just about any student extra-curricular activity.

  26. Mr. Wilen -

    What exactly do you mean by the comment below?

    "And while several schools have published two or more issues this school year, at least one 'red zone' school's journalism class has published nothing at all this school year. Even if they have no funding, they should still have been able to publish their newspaper on a web site."

    In some red zone schools, journalism (and yearbook, for that matter) are placed on the back burner, as AYP becomes the focus. So although this particular "red zone" school offers journalism, one can never know exactly how much support a teacher receives in taking on this sponsorship.

    In my former life, I was paid a yearly salary to put out publications as large as Blair's yearbook. While I had the entire year with one publication being my focus, the teachers, unfortunately, who take on these taxing duties also have other classes to teach. So the energy one needs to produce such a publication will eventually run out.

    And if journalism/yearbook teachers are given a mandate to ensure that all students in a grade 10 English class, for example, pass the course AND the HSA, where do you think they will put their energy?

    It's not as easy as you make it out to be.

    I know; I've been there.

    Mrs. Borrelli is a fabulous example of a resourceful and creative teacher who will make things work, but not all people are cut from the same mold.

    So I do hope you're not reprimanding this particular "red zone" journalism teacher, as you don't know what else s/he has on his/her plate.

    - Laura Cocozzella

  27. Mr Wilen,

    In response to your comment concerning the ability of all high schools to produce a newspaper on a website at all schools regardless of funding:

    1. All schools in MPCS have the ability to publish content on their respective school's MCPS website for free.

    2. Not all staff or students have the knowledge or training to publish a newspaper on their school's website. There are no pre-made publishing templates.

    3. Not all MCPS high schools offer the same courses or level of courses.

    4. Course offerings are dependent upon enrollment and staff to teach the course. If the staffing is not there, and/or the student interest in the course, it will not be offered. Perhaps some high schools do not have enough interest in a higher level journalism course, or a qualified or willing staff member to teach it. This will result in a lack of a consistently published newspaper in print or online, if one is published at all.

    Can this be blamed on funding or lack thereof of journalism by MCPS? Possibly, but probably not.

    As Ms. Borrelli points out, patrons and advertisers in the 'Green Zone" schools can pump more money into a slick print publication and the purchase of an unique URL than a 'red zone' school. This does not guarantee a gold medal winning publication, but as we see so much of in this county, appearance is more important than substance.

  28. Ms. Cocozzella:

    I have no doubt that Ms. Borrelli is a fabulous teacher and I'm certainly not criticizing her.

    If I understand your question and comment correctly, you are saying that at schools where making AYP is tough, we should accept the fact that journalism students will get less support than journalism students at schools where making AYP is not much of an issue. In other words, inferior education is just one of those things that happens when you live in a less wealthy zip code in Montgomery County, and the students (and parents and teachers) in the less wealthy zip code should accept the inferior education, right?

    The school that hasn't yet published a newspaper is Gaithersburg HS. Is it fair to the Gaithersburg HS journalism students that their journalism experience is inferior to that of students who live in the Walter Johnson cluster?

    Didn't Dr. Weast repeatedly say -- with the BOE nodding their heads in approval -- that he eliminated the economic differences between the red and green zones by providing greater funding to the red zone schools? And since he (ostensibly, at least) eliminated the differences, why aren't the students at the marginal AYP schools getting the same, high quality education as the students at the green zone schools?

  29. Anon of 5:21 PM:

    1. That's good information.

    2. I don't know specifically what it takes to publish on a school's website, but I do know that (used by Sherwood) or (used by Walter Johnson) are extremely simple to use. The teacher -- or better yet, the student -- uploads the PDF file of the newspaper to the website using a very simple menu. Frankly, if a journalism teacher isn't able to understand how to use or, he or she probably shouldn't be teaching journalism.

    3 & 4. Yes, the available classes vary among schools. I can understand not offering a class if there isn't enough student interest. But I don't buy the staffing excuse. Dr. Weast and BOE eliminated the economic differences between the red zone and green zone, right? So how can there be a staff shortage in the red zone?

    A unique URL is not needed to publish a newspaper on the web. And for those who do want a unique URL, the cost is less than $10 per year.

  30. Mr. Wilen,

    You say, ". . . But I don't buy the staffing excuse. Dr. Weast and BOE eliminated the economic differences between the red zone and green zone, right? So how can there be a staff shortage in the red zone?"

    Staffing is based upon enrollment. Journalism is an elective course. Would you rather there be English classes over the current recommended cap of 30? Perhaps offering advanced journalism would create such a situation. These are the decisions school have to make in these tough economic times. Instead of guessing, ask the school directly.

    There is not the luxury of having it all anymore, as the tax payers have said, "enough!" Let's just get back to the basics - offer the subjects that are tested, and if there is enough left over, we can offer the frills (e.g. journalism).

    If throwing money at the problem were the solution to low performance (in all academic areas, including crappy newspapers) in 'red zone' schools, the problem would have been solved by now. The reality is that most parents in 'red zone' schools, as opposed to 'green zone' schools, are not as involved (for various reasons) and do not have the financial means to give their children the advantages of those in the 'green zone'.

    It probably does not help that many of the students in those 'red zone' schools are also the 'wrong color' (i.e. "not the same as me", be it white, black or brown) and many do not want to rub shoulders with those different from themselves. While this is not politically correct to say, it is the reality.

    If you want to have an honest 'red zone'/'green zone' conversation, you will have to include more than just funding to the conversation. While different funding formulas would help some of the issues faced by 'red zone' schools, it is by no means the cure.

  31. @9:21 How about - rather have school funding spent on schools than on perks for administrators? Why isn't that choice part of your discussion?

    What's in it for you to spread false information about the MCPS budget? A budget that has in FACT doubled since 2001 and gone up even when enrollment dropped?

    The citizens of Montgomery County have strongly supported the public school system for years. Never have the voters said enough. Fact - the voters year after year elected the TEACHERS choice of candidates to all levels of elected office in resounding support of public school teachers and increasing funding!

    What's happened to all the funding to public schools? Well, it is divided up by a secret budget committee that includes MCPS staff, union leadership and MCCPTA. Why don't you ask those individuals why they have increased class size while allowing administrators extravagant perks, trips, and the ability to spend operating budget funds without Board of Education approval or competitive bidding?

    There is no excuse for Springbrook High School and all MCPS high schools to not have adequately funded journalism programs.

  32. @9:21 - You wrote: "There is not the luxury of having it all anymore, as the tax payers have said, "enough!" Let's just get back to the basics - offer the subjects that are tested, and if there is enough left over, we can offer the frills (e.g. journalism)."

    But some of the schools DO continue to have it all. They offer journalism and lots of other electives while meeting AYP. At those schools, the students aren't relegated to the "leftovers" pile.

    You also wrote: "If you want to have an honest 'red zone'/'green zone' conversation, you will have to include more than just funding to the conversation."

    Let's assume that the reason that Gaithersburg HS hasn't put out a newspaper this year is because the journalism teacher is busy helping marginal English class students. If that's the case, then adding funding for another teacher **would** enable the journalism class at Gaithersburg to proceed at the same rate as the journalism classes at other schools. So, in reality, the differences in the schools are actually solvable by changing the funding structure.

    By the way, we're not saying that the red zone newspapers are of poor quality. What we are saying is that when viewed against their green zone counterparts, they seem to be missing a lot of opportunities for learning or pushing the envelope -- e.g., failing to take more advantage of an online presence.

  33. A little budget reality. On Monday the Board of Education will hand out 2 take home cars to administrators.

    Time to get educated about what's actually getting funded in the MCPS budget. Student reporters, you all going to report on this?

  34. Blake High School's newspaper, The Blake Beat, isn't even mentioned in this article, yet consistantly ranks among the top in the state and has even won best in the nation twice. The Beat was named best in show for the state of Maryland for the 2010-2011 school year.

  35. @anon 10:28 AM: Very impressive! The current issue is 31 pages and is full of interesting stories and photos, and is obviously well-supported by advertisers.

    Is the Blake Beat funded entirely by advertisements, fundraising and patron donations, or does the newspaper have a dedicated funding source?


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