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Sterling High School students win Courage in Journalism Award

The Kansas Scholastic Press Association congratulates Madison Lackey, Ashlyn Spangenberg, Riley Richter, Megan Roelfs, Abby Riffel and Courtney Ball of Sterling High School. They have earned the second annual Courage in Journalism Award from KSPA, an award founded in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the monumental Tinker v. Des Moines decision in the Supreme Court.

The team of students receives the award for their courageous coverage of staffing cuts resulting in the loss of two teachers within their school. One of the positions cut was the position of their own journalism adviser, Todd Vogts. The team wrote a balanced news story on the front page about the staff cuts and took a stance in their staff editorial advocating for administration to keep their journalism program and adviser.

Their stories below are shining examples of how high school journalists can stand up to authority, while objectively covering the problem at stake. KSPA applauds the editors of the Cub for doing good journalism during at an unsteady time for their school and uncertain future for their own journalism program.

Below, please read our judge’s summary of how the students earned the award.

An Interview with the Winners

Executive Director Eric Thomas sat down with the Cub editors and their adviser, Todd Vogts for an interview over Zoom. The editors and their adviser explained the reporting process and their articles’ impact on their community.

Editors of the Cub, Sterling High School

  • School: Sterling High School 
Madison Lackey, Ashlyn Spangenberg, Riley Richter, Megan Roelfs, Abby Riffel and Courtney Ball exhibit courage in journalism by holding those in power accountable and standing up to authority.
The staff was able to speak with opposing views for their front page story, but also argue against the budgets cuts and the firing of their own adviser. Despite their program being cut, doubts from authority and their unsteady future, the Sterling High School students continued their job as student journalists.

Submitted work:

English department faces staffing changes

Staff Editorial: Journalism program must be maintained

From their application essay:

“We have faced a problematic, and at times hostile, administration. When principal Bressler first came in to meet the newspaper staff, he made comments suggesting journalism and print are dead. It reached its current climax when the program was essentially cut. After all, though we have been assured a journalism program will continue to exist, there has been no explanation or description of how it will continue. There doesn’t seem to be a plan.

“Without a dedicated journalism adviser, we worry our rights will not be as fully supported or protected as they are now.

“We don’t know what the future holds, but we are determined to fight through this adversity and difficulty. We are determined to continue to do our work as student journalists and keep fighting to keep our journalism program alive.”

Words from the Selection Committee:

“When journalism is under attack, journalists must defend themselves. The students of Sterling High School clearly understand this. This package of application materials showcases their willingness to report on and then advocate against the effective shuttering of their school’s journalism program through the elimination of their adviser’s position.

The Courage in Journalism award is intended to showcase student journalism that stands up to authority and uses the Kansas Student Publication Act to do so. With that in mind, the team from Sterling High School is the perfect group of journalists to receive the award for 2020. They gave voice to opposing views in their front-page reporting before taking a strong leadership voice on the editorial page. Supporting letters from teachers and community members make it clear that their writing had impact. Those letters describe student journalists as “under attack” and “under attack.” In this climate, the student journalists continued to write and publish about the choices made by administrators. 

“Our hope for these award-winning students — and their adviser — is that this award helps to spotlight for the school district and community how ill-fated this decision is to eliminate Vogts’s position. We hope that the powerful words of the students will convince those they are addressing: the people in power.”

Excerpts of recommendation letters:

From Ian Anderon, ELA instructor at Sterling High School:

“I agree with the editors on this point: I can’t match Mr. Vogts’s passion for journalism, not many can. Nor do we have available on staff any teacher who has his experience or qualifications. Let me say this simply: I hate to see Mr. Vogts go, and I hate to see cuts within our school as a whole. For eight years, Mr. Vogts and I have been colleagues, and I have enjoyed learning from him, especially with regard to journalism. It’s always been clear to me that he understood the two quotes above — that journalism is all about helping people think, helping people see what’s actually going on around them, helping people question when questions must be asked.

“This is happening now with the journalism students who wrote the above-mentioned editorial, which is a further credit to Mr. Vogts. They are asking questions, they are helping us think. Their challenge will be to keep this up no matter who at the helm next year.”

From Ben Marshall, Sterling School District substitute teacher:

“… the students not only cite their concern for the future of the program at SHS, they tie the argument for four years of journalism curriculum to the emphasis state educators are placing on career development during the high school years. They are clearly on top of the trends and willing to use them in support of their argument!

“I like their thinking and their presentation of ideas, clearly a result of superior instruction by a teacher who conveys his love of journalism to his students. I hope the USD 376 Board of Education feels the same way and reacts favorably to the concerns of the students.”

From Robin Webb, Math instructor at Sterling High School:

“Our students have been privileged to work with high quality instructors, who have demanded excellence, in many areas, including extra curricular activities.

“The journalism program has been a great example of this excellence. Mr Todd Vogts has built up the program over the last eight years, helping produce four journalists of the year for class 1A-2A. Student have learned many important skills which will help them in all facts of life, especially in the areas of communication. I can appreciate this on a personal level, having benefited from taking a journalism class in high school from a quality instructor, even though it is not a field I pursued as a career.

“I applaud their efforts to make their voice known in the editorial… It can be daunting to stand up for something that others do not value, especially when it goes against what the current administration feels is less important. I am proud of their courage to put themselves out there and make their voices heard, and I support their work in this effort.” 

The KSPA board and staff congratulate the editors of Sterling High School for their amazing work and courage in student journalism. Wish their courageous adviser, Todd Vogts, the best of luck in the future and thank him for his commitment to Kansas student journalism. We look forward to continuing to work with him through KSPA.

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