Caught between the looming hammer of new federal regulations and a deepening school budget crisis that is cutting the very programs needed to make sure that kids really aren’t left behind, chances are you’re not going to have any more money to communicate with parents and promote your schools.

If you’re looking for a new, cost-effective way to use the birth mother of new media—cable television—you might want to tune into an innovative program called “Eye on Rockwood.” Created by students under the auspices of the Rockwood (Mo.) School District’s communications department, the program puts a positive spotlight on students and schools.

“The stories can really be about anything,” says Tom Booth, a broadcast journalism specialist who works on a standard teacher contract. “I tell my students and our teachers to look for unusual classes, hobbies, skills, talents.”

Recent segments have included a middle school Victorian ball with period costumes that incorporated lessons from social studies and language arts classes, a high school that hosted a drama camp for elementary school students, and a parent volunteer who uses a pet parrot to calm and relate to troubled kids as they wait to see a school counselor.

An early childhood special-education program that is helping preschoolers start kindergarten on par with their non-disabled peers also has been featured, along with the requisite blood drives, fundraisers, and school musicals. Because the program’s purpose is to show parents and the community how well Rockwood students, teachers, schools, and the district are performing, negative or sensational stories really haven’t been an issue.

“We let students know up front what the purpose is, and that it’s part of the district’s communications department,” says Booth. “We really don’t get into anything controversial.”

Booth currently has a stable of 27 reporters from the district’s four high schools. In addition to gaining valuable, hands-on experience in tracking down stories, conducting interviews, and producing news segments, students may receive one-half practical arts credit for 75 hours of participation.

The student journalists also are given eight hours of release time each month so they can cover events during school hours. To keep students focused academically, however, most release time is for a half-day or less at a time.

Each school is equipped with identical camera packages, which include a SVHS (“super-vee”) Panasonic with a light kit and a set of microphones (wireless, handheld with the Eye on Rockwood logo and a clip-on). Booth also has a similar equipment package, which he brings to various shoots.

Students are responsible for finding, researching and writing the stories. They also interview their subjects and handle the on-camera stand-ups and story introductions and wrap-arounds.

Booth handles most of the videography and editing, using a non-linear system from Avid Technology. He also schedules student videographers, who can check out their school cameras from a designated administrator on campus. Although he’s willing to work with interested students, he’s found that most simply don’t have the time that video editing and production requires.

Booth meets with his reporting team about once a month and maintains frequent contact through eMail and on-site camera work. The finished program runs 30 minutes and airs on a two-week schedule on the local cable channel for Charter Communications. Typically, Booth includes four news segments, along with a two-minute “blooper” piece at the end. A standard logo opening and closing with credits also is included.

At the end of each school year, Booth presents each student with a personalized newsreel on VHS tape. In addition to sharing the good news about students, teachers, schools, and the district, the teenagers have found that it puts a positive eye on them as well. The newsreels have helped Rockwood graduates get into some of the nation’s top journalism schools, according to Booth.

“Normally, journalism students at Mizzou [the University of Missouri at Columbia] have to put in a couple of years of coursework before doing anything at the local TV station that is manned by students,” says Booth. “One of our students was able to start doing volunteer stuff right away as a freshman because of the experiences he had in Rockwood.”

Booth says he finds working with young people deeply satisfying after logging more than 20 years in newsrooms and corporate public relations offices. “This is just a perfect match, it’s really refreshing,” says Booth, who has a bachelor of arts degree in English and a master of arts in communication.

Districts interested in starting a similar news show need to invest in high-quality equipment, Booth says, noting that the Panasonics he and the students use are configured similarly to those found in local television newsrooms. “The district has really been behind the program financially, in terms of getting us good gear and good editing systems,” says Booth. “So often you’re given the little camcorder and everybody wants NBC.”

Booth also said that he feels the program would benefit from some additional structure. “I come from a different environment, so I’m used to doing a program, not supporting a class,” says Booth. “I think it would help keep the students motivated if we had a little more structure and met more often as a class, so that’s something I’m working on for the future.”

See these related links:

Rockwood School District
http://www.rockwood.k12.mo.us

Avid Technology
http://www.avid.com

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.