Students Write Community’s News
El Original’s small newsroom is buzzing with activity. Reporters discuss their stories with editors and type away at computers while other staff members scramble to deal with last-minute crises. Burritos lie half-eaten on conference tables, victims of an impending deadline.
The young Latino and African-American journalists are students at Jefferson High School, but the newspaper they are producing is not the typical high school paper. The articles in El Original are printed in both English and Spanish, and the subject matter focuses not only on student themes but also on neighborhood issues.
The newspaper is “really a community paper written by teens,” said Donna Myrow, El Original publisher. “It has generated a real bonding between the students and the community,” said Philip Saldivar, Jefferson High principal.
Teen-agers read the paper because they can identify with the writers, and the stories deal openly with their concerns and thoughts, Myrow said. The students also know firsthand about issues in their neighborhood, which is south of downtown Los Angeles and east of the Coliseum. “These teens aren’t isolated,” she said, “They have the same problems their parents have.”
The Jefferson High School area--like many others in Los Angeles--is affected by overcrowding, poverty and a high crime rate, said Myrow. “The teens have a high potential to be dropouts,” she added.
Once a predominantly African-American area, the community is increasingly Latino. More than 90% of the Jefferson High student body is Latino while about 9% is African-American.
Because many residents are newly arrived Latino immigrants with limited English proficiency, El Original has been a bilingual newspaper from its inception last June.
“The fact that it’s in English and Spanish makes all the difference,” said Myrow. “It makes it more accessible.” The parents “get an understanding of the neighborhood problems,” she said. “It fills a void in that community. It is written in an active voice with a lot of personal stories, and a lot of helpful news.”
“It allows parents to know about what’s going on in the school and the community at large,” said Saldivar. “The last page usually has referral numbers about things like drug abuse and social services, which has been a very good resource.”
The newspaper is produced four times a year, and 25,000 copies are distributed to libraries, schools, churches and other area agencies.
Most staff members are bilingual and translate stories from English to Spanish, Myrow noted.
Articles have included such issues as school-based AIDS education, immigrants’ rights and substance abuse. The paper also features essays and film, TV and music reviews.
One reporter, Ana Vasquez, said she likes to concentrate on subjects “interesting to teen-agers.” She recently wrote a response (“Jefferson High School Bashed by Press”) to a Los Angeles Times story on Jefferson High and a feature describing her experiences in Upward Bound, a summer program to prepare minority students for college.
Vasquez, 16, who was born in Durango, Mexico, said her schoolmates seem to enjoy the variety of stories in El Original.
Elisa Padilla, another reporter, said students and teachers from other schools in the area read El Original. “My little brother brings home the newspaper and says: ‘We read your article in class--and now we have an assignment on it!’ ” Padilla said, laughing.
Last fall, El Original sponsored an essay contest entitled “Dear Mom and Dad,” in which students were asked to write letters anonymously about personal dilemmas. Published essays dealt with such problems as dating, drug use and being molested by a parent.
El Original was established last year after Jefferson Assistant Principal Roselyn Weeks contacted Myrow with the idea of starting a state-funded, student-written newspaper. Since 1988, Myrow has been executive director of L.A. Youth, a newspaper staffed by students from throughout Los Angeles County. L.A. Youth is one of 13 newspapers run by Youth News Service nationwide.
Funding for El Original was obtained from the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, as part of a grant to launch Project CPR (Community Programs Revitalization), a program aimed at reducing drug and alcohol abuse in a zone that encompasses Jefferson and seven other South-Central schools. Students get minimum wages for their work through the state grant. El Original’s annual budget for production, distribution and adviser salaries is $58,000, Myrow said.
The newspaper resulted from concern about the “negative press received in South-Central Los Angeles,” Weeks said. Those involved in the project “want to communicate positive events occurring in the area and spotlight community heroes,” she said.
In addition to reporting the area’s successes, “El Original addresses the problems in the community: the lack of youth employment, lack of means of recreation (and presence of) gang activity and substance abuse,” Myrow said. “We talk honestly and openly about these problems,” she said, providing a public forum for discussing and formulating possible solutions.
Student writers usually work six hours a week for El Original while school is in session and 16 hours weekly during vacations. No journalism experience is necessary to join the staff. Mentors from Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and other publications work with the staffs of El Original and L.A. Youth.
USC journalism student Minerva Canto, the editorial adviser to El Original, said the improvement in the students’ writing is often dramatic. “There’s a sense of satisfaction that they’re really achieving something,” she said.
Parents have overwhelmingly supported the journalists’ efforts. “They like it, especially when they see my name in the paper,” Vasquez said. “My mom went to Mexico, and she was showing it off to my grandparents.”
“My parents think it’s great, especially my getting familiar with computers,” said Shanika Taylor Rodriguez, a reporter who noted that she has made gains in her writing and speaking since joining the staff in September. “It inspires you to read other newspapers too,” she added.
There is also another payoff to being part of a publication, said Taylor Rodriguez. “I’m looking forward to seeing my name in print,” she said. “I’ll keep about a hundred copies!”