Controversial stories yield national prize for publication
Grant High School senior Julia Comnes worked on the school paper last year, but she isn't that jazzed about many of the stories she wrote.
"My stories were decent, but kind of shallow," she says.
Her subjects were typical high school newspaper fare: the school cafeteria, the new student store, a profile of the new principal.
This year, the long-running monthly broadsheet, The Grantonian, left the building and the Grant Magazine, a 24- or 36-page glossy monthly, took its place.
The eight issues this year -- supported entirely by donations and a small subscription base -- have significantly upped the ante for student journalism at the school.
The 22-student team, including 12 seniors who receive Portland State University credits for the class, picked up a fourth-place award earlier this month at the National High School Journalism Conference.
The award recognized the magazine's February cover story on the hazing incident on the boys' junior varsity basketball team that raised a lot of questions at Grant and captured citywide attention.
This year's stories also tackled race on the drama team, students living with Asperger's syndrome and eating disorders, the culture of beauty, the debate over student dress codes, and the reality of homelessness as experienced by a student who spent months sleeping on school rooftops.
"We want to make Grant better, and that can't happen unless we point out what's wrong," says Comnes, one of the three student editors and a Scripps College-bound class valedictorian. "That's what the point of this is; that's the point of journalism."
Tribune photo: Christopher Onstott • Grant Magazine adviser David Austin (above) has led his students toward journalism top honors in the publication's first year; stories have focused on hard-hitting issues. The magazine picked up a fourth-place award earlier this month (below) at the National High School Journalism Conference.
At the national conference -- Grant's first appearance at the event -- the magazine staff picked up a handful of individual awards as well, including the "superior" top honor in first-year photography; "excellent" nods in news/feature photography, review writing, editorial writing; and an "honorable mention" in online news packaging.
David Austin, the magazine's volunteer coordinator, says the publication could not exist without the support of Principal Vivian Orlen, who agreed to his proposal for a new brand of journalism when she took the reins this year.
Austin had offered his time -- close to 35 volunteer hours per week -- as well as his expertise as a former Oregonian reporter who happened to have a son at the school who's been involved in journalism.
"I saw it as an opportunity for the students, from the insider perspective. I thought they could capture the news in a different way," Orlen says. After the Jan. 12 hazing incident on campus, "I asked them to do their own investigation," she says. "They did. I think they learned a lot."
Orlen and Austin looked outside the box to get the program up and running. Orlen does not use school or district funds to support the magazine, but she did grant them a classroom that had been used as storage space, which Austin and the students cleared out and cleaned, painted and filled with hand-built tabletops and a giant white board. Orlen provided the use of several Mac computers and had the room wired for technology.
And since Austin is an adjunct Portland State University professor but not a PPS teacher, Orlen did some creative staffing to allow him to lead the class. She assigned an art teacher, who lends support in the magazine's layout and design process, as the teacher of record.
Orlen has taken a hands-off approach to all topics, including the hazing piece.
"I am definitely not interested in controlling the press," she says.
Tackling race issue
While the hazing story was big, it wasn't the most controversial.
"The Drama of Race," a first-person opinion piece written by senior Alison Lasher, also created a firestorm.
The piece calls out longtime drama teacher Chris Lane's casting of a local black recording artist and actress to play the part of a lead black female in the spring musical, "Hairspray."
The role of "Motormouth" Maybelle called for a heavy-set, boisterous Queen Latifah-type. Two female students, both black, tried out for the part, but neither were cast.
"Choosing Hairspray was a definite step in the right direction," Lasher wrote. "But Lane blew it, big time. Given the opportunity to cast and then mentor an African-American student, Lane hired an adult at the first sign that things were challenging. The message that sends to African-American students isn't a good one. None of you are ready, it seems like we're saying. Maybe next year. Or the year after that."
The timing of the piece, a day after the show opened, raised the ire of many, including Lane, a white graduate of Jefferson High School who's taught at Grant for the past 14 years.
Lasher, who is white, had called for the drama staff to reach out to the Black Student Union to try to build relationships with students of color and their parents. She said it's progress to have diversity in a play, but critical to cast students of color in leading roles.
Lane counters that he has been working with the Black Student Union all year and has been working on outreach to diverse students over the years. And he's looking at potentially choosing productions for next year that touch on race, like "The Wiz," and potentially "Dreamgirls," because of the heartened response to "Hairspray."
About 100 students were part of the production, double the typical size, including about 20 students of color.
But for "Hairspray," Lane defends his choice in hiring Julianne Johnson (a music teacher at Portland Community College) for the part, saying he had her in mind from the start, saying he needed a star who could act, sing and dance. "It's sort of like an athletic program -- you have to get the right people in the right positions," he says.
Lane does credit Lasher for taking on the hard topic of race. "This needed to be brought up -- I give her props for that," he says. "It's a great starting place to have the conversation (about race) ... Grant is two different schools; everybody's known this forever. Within this world, it's important it's opened up so it's discussed. It's painful."
When it comes to planning for next year, Austin and his students are looking to build on their success.
It was a quick start this year -- Austin lined up Northeast Portland's Mollet Printing to print the publication at a discount, since the owners have kids who'll attend Grant.
Austin's hope is to boost donations and subscriptions as well fund-raise and solicit ad sales.
Students are excited to continue seeing their voices represented on issues that matter.
Senior Ruby Sutton, a staff reporter who's taken journalism classes since she was a sophomore, felt empowered by writing about being a black woman trying to keep up her hair, and how much effort it takes.
"It's not really talked about -- it is among us, but not others," she says.
While Sutton will study business administration in college, she says journalism has taught her how to write, think critically, question authority and be an informed citizen.
"Kids don't necessarily watch the news or read The Oregonian," she says. "But they read the magazine. Because it's kids they know, and things they're interested in."
• Other high school papers are mixed bag
While Grant High School's journalistic endeavors are gaining national clout, most other PPS high schools are feeling the pressure of budget cuts.
Benson, Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools have been without any student publication for years. Madison High School's paper may end next year because of the loss of a grant, says Gene Brunak, adviser for Madison's Constitution.
Lincoln High School was forced to meld its beginning and advanced journalism classes into a single period, resulting in "less instructor time and more difficult access to computers," says David Bailey, Cardinal Times adviser.
Franklin High School's Post adviser, Kate Moore, says she wishes she could give some English credit for her journalism students. Since she cannot, she sometimes tells kids to take AP English rather than work for the paper, because it will help them afford college.
Moore says high school papers often don't receive awards because they cost money to apply for.
Brunak says his situation is a tragic one: "When a school can't afford to have a student voice, I believe it has entered the world of the 'have-nots.' "
-NATE FORD, for the Tribune