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Given the Freedom, Tireless Reporters Excel

Susan Notes: Michael Winerip describes lots of remarkable people. For me, the principal stands out: to produce a great student paper takes a principal who believes in free speech, including the freedom to criticize the principal. Phillip Gainous has been principal at Montgomery Blair for 22 years, and in that time he has never asked to see an article before publication. If you'd like to send him a note of appreciation, here's his address: pgainous@mbhs.edu . And here's the newspaper e-mail: silverchips@gmail.com

"We were not supposed to do stories on subjects like student drug use," Mr. Mathwin said. "We'd do it anyway, and put a little warning, 'This story violates county regulations.' All Mr. Gainous had to do was signal to me that this wasn't the way to go, and I'd have stopped. But he didn't. He'd just say, 'Boy, this is a good story.' "
I love this line: This story violates county regulations.


By Michael Winerip

SILVER SPRING, Md.

CHELSEA ZHANG, a senior at Montgomery Blair High, is an ace reporter for the school's Silver Chips, one of the finest student newspapers in the country. In a recent issue, Chelsea had a front page article on the growing bureaucratic demands taking up teachers' time. The article quoted six teachers criticizing new policies being imposed by the Blair High principal and by Montgomery County officials. All six teachers were quoted on the record, with their names, a journalistic feat many grown-up reporters would have trouble matching.

"Chelsea's relentless," said Maureen Freeman, a journalism teacher who is adviser to the paper. "She's relentless in a good way. It's a positive relentlessness. For two weeks, everywhere I went, there was Chelsea interviewing some teacher in the back of a classroom."

That was nothing compared with Chelsea's next assignment: Find students who have had sex in school.

For days, she wandered the halls doing random interviews.

"I tried not to be shy," Chelsea said. "Last year, when I was a junior, I never could have done it. This year, I'm a lot better talking to people out of the blue. It gets easier desensitizing yourself to being embarrassed. I went up to people I did not know and asked if they knew who had sex in school. I didn't want to ask them directly. It scares them. I wanted to squeeze as much information out of them; that was my strategy."

In this manner, she collected a dozen names.

During the next week, at night, at home, Chelsea worked the phones.

"It was easier asking personal questions over the phone," she said. "My mom disapproved of the vulgarity of it, but for me, it was enjoyable making the calls."

In the end, the article ("Inside a Public School, a Private Deed") described sex in the school auditorium ("fifth row of the center section"); in the arts hallway; by the staircase nearest the gym; in a girls' bathroom ("they flushed their used condom down the toilet"); in the band room, the band uniform room and a band practice room ("it was one of those spur of the moment, have to have you, kinds of things").

Six times in the last decade, Silver Chips has won the award for Maryland's best student paper; twice in the last four years it has won the National Scholastic Press Association's top award.

What does it take to produce a great student newspaper?

For one, it takes smart students working monstrous hours. Besides being the Silver Chips' official sexoporter, as staff members now refer to her, Chelsea has been accepted to M.I.T. and is a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search. Samir Paul, co-editor in chief, got in early to Yale.

"I take five A.P. classes, and by far I do the most work for these newspaper stories," said Allie O'Hora, another reporter. And what stories! Allie tracked down a sophomore boy who covered the bathrooms with graffiti, and turned her exclusive interview into another front-pager. ("It's our community too," the boy told her, "and we should have just as much say as to what goes on the walls as Pepsi and Gatorade do.")

It also takes a tireless adviser. The paper comes out once every five weeks, and on production nights, Ms. Freeman and the staff stay until the custodians kick them out, usually at 10. (If they stay later, Emily-Kate Hannapel, a senior, bakes the janitors muffins.) There is also an online edition, which students update daily

Fortunately, Ms. Freeman, 40, is high-energy. On production nights, to break the tedium, the staff holds its traditional Race to the Top, up three flights of stairs, and Ms. Freeman's best time is 11.2 seconds, just 0.08 behind Samir, the co-editor in chief.

But most important, to produce a great student paper takes a principal who believes in free speech, including the freedom to criticize the principal. Phillip Gainous has been principal at Montgomery Blair for 22 years, and in that time he has never asked to see an article before publication, say the two teachers who have been Silver Chips advisers, Ms. Freeman and John Mathwin.

The advisers say his support is so subtle, it's often invisible. In the 1990's, a Montgomery County superintendent tried censoring Silver Chips. The county concocted a regulation prohibiting articles that did not reflect community values.

"We were not supposed to do stories on subjects like student drug use," Mr. Mathwin said. "We'd do it anyway, and put a little warning, 'This story violates county regulations.' All Mr. Gainous had to do was signal to me that this wasn't the way to go, and I'd have stopped. But he didn't. He'd just say, 'Boy, this is a good story.' "

Indeed, Mr. Gainous did not seem too eager to be interviewed about his subtle support for his award-winning paper. It took two visits to his office by this reporter, and a half-dozen calls, before he called back. Asked why he had stood up for the paper against the superintendent, all he said was, "I thought the kids were right." He said he had always trusted the paper's advisers. "The only thing I ask: if a story's controversial and will provoke calls from the central office or parents, that I'm given a 'heads up' so I can be prepared."

Mr. Mathwin, who was adviser for 26 years before retiring, said, "Mr. Gainous isn't the type to talk about the value of the First Amendment, but he definitely practices it."

One result is a student paper with a sophisticated sense of balance. The March front page has an article questioning the spending practices of an after-school program; an article on a former teacher who left the school $50,000; photo displays on the winter pep rally and spring musical; and a 2,000-word investigative feature by Jody Pollock on students who "Robotrip" chug eight-ounce bottles of cough syrup to get high.

Chelsea's article quoting the six teachers upset about red tape also featured a lengthy interview with Mr. Gainous explaining why he hoped new faculty committees would improve academic performance. The article on school sex included an interview with a counselor ("sex should be a well-planned, safe experience") and a warning from Mr. Gainous that anyone caught in the act faced a 10-day suspension. The less jolly side of sex at school was also described. For a girl who had sex on the auditorium catwalk, "that was the extent of the relationship."

The complexity of writing balanced articles is a hard lesson. Allie O'Hora wrote about athletes who are ineligible to play sports because their grades are too low and found a boy willing to use his name.

"I almost felt bad if it were me, I wouldn't want my name in a story like that," she said. "When I wrote it, I made it sound as positive as possible. I guess I didn't want him embarrassed. I agonize over this stuff."

E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times
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