Each Wednesday at noon, 13 journalism students from UMass Amherst board a bus at Haigis Mall and set off for The High School of Commerce in Springfield, Mass., an urban school with a 91% minority enrollment. They spend the afternoon teaching and mentoring high school students in journalism, the writing process, and the unlimited possibilities that stem from both.
Community Journalism, offered by the UMass Journalism Department and supervised by Commerce alumnus Prof. Nicholas McBride, is an initiative to increase college opportunities for students at Commerce. The focus is the integration of UMass and Commerce students, and exposure to reporting and writing. At the end of each year, the class publishes a magazine showcasing Commerce student work. “This is not a save-the-natives initiative with us posing as saviors,” says McBride, “This is a save-ourselves initiative through the sharing of resources and knowledge, a reciprocal exchange of ideas that benefit all concerned.”
In fall 2008, McBride took his first UMass Amherst community journalism class to Commerce. After coordinating with Brian Duffy, a former student of McBride’s and then assistant principal of Commerce, they launched the project to inspire students to reach beyond the walls of high school. “We knew we had a mess. There was not enough money, no strong management at the school, and a spike in gangs and violence,” recalls McBride. Ten semesters later, the course has proved to be a valuable experience, for both high school and college students.
Every week, the class arrives at Commerce during the school’s “advisory block,” a guided free period dedicated to assisting students with particular subjects. Commerce and UMass students mix in small groups to write articles, practice photojournalism, and prepare material for the magazine. Smiles, high fives, and words of encouragement make their way around the room as students put the finishing touches on their work. “It’s a mutual teaching moment for both me and the student, so that’s just exciting in itself,” says Stephanie Ramírez, a sophomore journalism major at UMass. “You think you’re going to help a kid and they really help you in return. It’s awesome. This is just fantastic to me.”
Jahkeel Jean, known as Shaq, is a senior at Commerce and in his third year with the community journalism class. “I find it a lot easier to write now. I used to complain about having to write five paragraph essays, but now I run through pages. I think the biggest change is how much I write,“ he says.
Since the start, McBride has seen the benefits of the class, some unintentional, grow for both Commerce and UMass students. “There are side benefits for undergrads that I never anticipated,” says McBride, “Some have gotten jobs because of this.”
As for Commerce students, some have decided to stay with the class throughout all four years of their time in high school. “That kind of says it,” says McBride.