School newscast empowers students to tell their own stories

By Carolina Hidalgo, St. Louis Public Radio

ST. LOUIS, Missouri – Fifth-grader Saniya Bryant sits at a desk at Koch Elementary, meticulously studying a set of questions. Behind her, a lime green cloth hangs from the ceiling. Across from her, a fourth-grader swivels a video camera in her direction.

“Quiet on set.”

Saniya is prepping herself to conduct an interview for Koch TV, the school's student-run online newscast. Originally a public speaking course for fourth- and fifth-graders, the class morphed into a news operation this year.

Every Thursday, students gather in a converted teacher's lounge at the Ferguson-area school to do research, prepare questions and write scripts. They record each other in front of the makeshift green screen with Principal Howard Fields’ personal Canon equipment and an iPad teleprompter.

They often interrupt the show to burst into song – a “Hello?” spoken into a mic becomes a quick Adele impersonation – and crack jokes – “You sound like some chicken without seasoning!” – but Fields is quick to point out the valuable skills they’re learning while having fun.

“They’re working on critical thinking, literacy, listening – components they’re being assessed on outside of Koch TV,” he said. “Everything we do is about impacting student achievement.”

A former high school basketball coach, Fields brings a coaching mentality to the news team. He reminds students to play their part – producer, anchor, cameraman – and work together.

“Mr. Fields steps back and lets us do what we’re capable of,” said fifth-grader Myauna Hayes, who Fields describes as a star reporter. “We’re all in this together.”

Originally designed as a way to build confidence and improve writing skills with the allure of television, Koch TV (pronounced "coke") has also become an outlet for the kids to share their stories with the world.

For many Koch students, the presence of news crews in their neighborhoods often signifies tragedy or loss. Less than a mile away, a bronze dove is embedded in the sidewalk along Canfield Drive near the spot where 18-year-old Michael Brown's body lay for hours after he was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer in 2014.

This past fall, a groundbreaking ceremony for Koch’s new playground attracted media attention after the shooting death of a classmate, fourth-grader Jamyla Bolden.

Now, the kids have a chance to show their school and community in a brighter light. Koch TV's coverage of the new playground featured footage of students dancing, paired with more than half a dozen upbeat interviews with teachers and neighbors.

“When I was younger, I used to hate watching the news,” said Saniya, who is 11 years old. “It would scare me.”

“They don't put happy stuff,” added her classmate and best friend, Karen Lomax. The girls wear matching necklaces, each with a purple peace sign surrounded by rhinestones.

“If I were in charge of the news on TV, I wouldn't just say, ‘Today this person got shot.’ I would say, ‘But they were loved. Their memory is going to be around.’”

As they learn to share their news in their voices, the fledging reporters look to former journalists Cordell Whitlock and Allison Blood for guidance. Every week, they volunteer time outside of their jobs at the St. Louis County executive's communications office to teach the students the fundamentals of news gathering.

“Be truthful,” Blood told students as she handed out worksheets and candy one afternoon. “That’s what the news is about.”

Whitlock said the newscast has been a natural next step to the public speaking class he and Blood originally launched last school year. The final product, which is uploaded to YouTube and shared with parents, allows students to see their focus and hard work pay off.

They also get to serve as role models for younger students. The show is peppered with reminders to work hard, come to school and “do better than your best.” 

The phrase, which has become a mantra for Koch students, closes out every show. 

“We need for kids to know they can do better than they did yesterday,” said Fields, who had the motto painted in the school's lobby after becoming principal in the fall of 2014.

The phrase serves as a reminder to him as much as to his students and staff. The year before he started, Koch received 14 out of 70 possible points on its state report card. After Fields’ first year, that number jumped to 42.

The score contributed to Koch's district, Riverview Gardens, being named the most improved in the state for the 2014-15 school year. Riverview Gardens is one of two unaccredited districts in St. Louis County. The other is nearby Normandy.

Koch TV reporters have covered the accreditation issue, producing a segment about a recent public hearing on the district's status for their third episode.

“Many students recognize that there are people who believe that this school, this school district, is not as good as the others,” said Melanie Powell-Robinson, spokeswoman for the district. “And they want to let people know that great learning does occur here.”

On this recent afternoon, Karen heads to the anchor desk to deliver lines for the closing sequence. She and co-anchor Amorion Bland joke together onscreen as Myauna sets up the teleprompter and counts down. 

Looking straight into the camera, the anchors thank Koch TV's viewers and end with their usual reminder: “Until next time, always do better than your best.”