By: Tom Walsh
10 Missouri high school students do internships,
20 take classes at local newspaper sp.
AT 8:30 EACH weekday morning, 10 Douglass High School students scatter from their homeroom and go to work.
For Marie Kennedy, 17, and Tony Riess, 18, that means climbing the stairs to the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune newsroom. Others head down the hall to the personnel office, or make tracks to classified advertising.
After teaming up in a local Partners in Education program for five years, the Tribune and Douglass took their joint venture a giant step further this year. Douglass students not only do internships at the paper but 20 of them are taking classes there, too.
In the past, Douglass students likely would have been called trouble, or problem kids. In the parlance of the times, they’re “at risk.”
Teacher Susan Trice, who prefers to discard labels, said her students “are kids who do better with a little bit more attention.” Small classes at the alternative school allow teachers to give students more individualized instruction than they would get in traditional classes.
While the three R’s are taught at Douglass, the emphasis is more on acquiring job and social skills ? and that’s where the Tribune comes in.
Douglass and the small (18,000-circulation) mid-Missouri daily became partners in 1989, with the Tribune providing some supplies and several one-hour-a-day internships.
Tribune personnel director Mary Waters said with a grin that the Douglass school is a “perfect match” for the family-owned newspaper: “Neither of us seem to know how to travel the well-defined path.”
About a year ago, Douglass principal Tim Travers looked at and liked several “storefront schoolroom” programs in St. Louis. Students ran a T-shirt shop and worked at a hospital while taking classes in the businesses. When Travers was shopping around for a partner to lure into a similar arrangement, Waters jumped at the idea and offered to house two 10-student classes at the Tribune.
Waters, a former high school teacher, said that bringing the Douglass kids into the building was a logical extension of the partnership, with only a slight risk involved. She sees newspapers as natural places to try such experiments.
“We hoped that our environment, the fast pace and creativity, would lend itself to the kids’ taking more responsibility for themselves,” Waters said.
Tripling the daily internship time was easy; the biggest challenge was finding space for a classroom.
After scouring the building, they divided in half an underused employee lounge, thereby creating a class site that pleased students by its proximity to vending machines and caused minimal disturbance to other workers.
The 10 older students, mainly seniors, were assigned internships in a number of departments. The 10 younger students ? who have dubbed themselves “Project Print” ? are being trained to take charge of a small printing business.
Waters said the Tribune had regretted selling a few years ago its offset, sheet-fed printing equipment, and was looking to get back in the field again.
The Douglass students have been studying business principles in general and offset printing in particular. Soon they’ll take charge of producing in-house stationery and newsletters, and will eventually search out work in the local community. A Tribune press operator will work with them.
The work setting has proved to be an even stronger incentive for the students to take on responsibility than many people originally thought.
“It’s a place of business, a professional organization, where everyone is acting in a professional way,” principal Travers said. “A kid can’t act as oddball as he might get away with in a traditional school setting.”
Sixteen-year-old Steve Rizzo backs Travers up.
“You act differently, kind of,” Rizzo said. “And it’s not real boring, so we can learn more. Many of the kids say they like the feeling of being part of the ‘real world.’ “
All in all, having 20 teenagers in the building has gone more smoothly than many people expected, with only a few disciplinary infractions that have propelled some kids back to the main high school.
Sure, a few employees grumble about the program, saying they come to work to “get away” from kids, not meet up with them. And the students create an image problem when they gather to smoke cigarettes outside the building, a practice Waters has tried to snuff out.
Each intern has a Tribune supervisor, who is responsible for teaching, coaching and staying in touch with the teachers. For supervisors, the adjustment isn’t always easy. Assistant city editor Scott Swafford works with seniors Riess and Kennedy on the Tribune’s Chalkboard page, which every Thursday features writing by a Columbia elementary school student.
“It’s a lot more work than I anticipated,” Swafford said. “I have to teach them everything: layout, the basics of design, how to use an exacto knife without cutting their fingers off. All that’s well outside the job description of an assistant city editor.”
Deadlines, a fast pace and a need for accuracy, Swafford said, make the newspaper business an “awfully challenging place to try something like this.”
While others praise the program, Swafford reserves judgment.
“I’ll say it’s worthwhile if they stick with it, graduate and come out with a respect for working, for being in the workplace,” he said.
Riess said being at the Tribune has turned his attitude around.
“It keeps me in school, definitely,” he said. “I was thinking about dropping out this year. I’ve got a baby on the way, and I’m going into the Marine Corps in June.”
The opportunity to get his high school diploma while gaining work experience and earning a little money for his upcoming wedding and child, Riess said, persuaded him to go back to school. Interns earn minimum wage for up to three hours a day; the Private Industry Council, a third partner in the arrangement, provides a grant to cover wages.
Riess said his attendance and grades are the best they’ve been in years, a common experience among the Douglass-Tribune students.
Kennedy said, “I used to not go to school at all. It’s more important to show up here because you have a job to go to. You can’t just walk in when you want.”
For about a month now, the Chalkboard page has featured a small logo with the Douglass High School bulldog and a credit for Riess and Kennedy.
“I get a natural high when I see that,” Reiss said. “It shows that we’re doing something for the public, that we’re not just troublemakers and little kids.”
Teacher Ann Snook said the progress her kids have made is apparent only a few months into the school year.
“It’s exciting to see their communication skills improving, little by little,” Snook said.
?( Douglass High School student Tony Riess (right) works with Columbia Daily Tribune assistant city editor Scott Swafford on the Chalkboard page. Riess credits his work at the Tribune with keeping him in school this year.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Walsh is a reporter for the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune) [Caption]