Sierra Middle School journalism programs keep setting the bar higher and higher
PARKER—When young aspiring journalists enter Sierra Middle School’s newspaper and yearbook classes for the first time, they already know that they are inheriting the role of caretaker for esteemed programs, which have won multiple national awards annually for nearly a decade.
Students recently received the news that Sierra’s newspaper won second place Best of Show and the yearbook won third place Best of Show at the National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA) Convention.
The yearbook also won a Pacemaker Award from the NSPA, one of the top awards in scholastic journalism, received by only eight middle schools in the country.
Sierra’s yearbook program additionally earned a Silver Crown from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, along with two Gold Circle awards. Sierra was the only school in Colorado—including high schools—to earn Gold Circle awards and they were the only public middle school in the country to earn Gold Circles.
Above: Sierra Middle School's 2014-15 yearbook. Students draw inspiration from numerous professional magazines to design a product that is modern and on-trend.
Sierra’s Journalism Adviser, Jed Palmer, credits the outstanding successes of the programs to the passion of the students.
“I think right now what keeps us at this level is that the students care about keeping us there,” Palmer said. “I’ve been telling the students for years, winning an award has never been my goal. My goal for yearbook is we want to deliver a good product, we don’t want people being unhappy with it and we want to sell the product.”
“The students really strive for excellence,” he said. “They’ve taken it on as their passion project. The kids coming into the program know the reputation of the program and are joining because of that.”
A veteran teacher at Sierra, Palmer helped to co-write the curriculum for the journalism and yearbook classes 14 years ago, which were revamped to be computer-focused, as well as pull in art, graphic design and technology standards.
Having participated in yearbook and journalism programs himself in middle and high school, as well as college, helped inspire how he runs the classes at Sierra. He doesn’t have the expectation that everything the students do will be award winning, but he does expect them to give their very best.
“I have found that when I set the bar high and I have built the ladder to get there, our kids do incredible things,” Palmer said.
“The publication at Sierra, like [yearbook] Eagle Eye View, always has a high bar, and we try to pass it, we hope we can reset it even higher,” said Nicole Wilkes, an eighth grader who is serving as Editor in Chief of this year’s yearbook. “We do it for the students, but we also do it for the publication, because if we did half of what we did for the book the students would still love it. To a regular eye, we go above and beyond, but for us we believe we can always do better.”
Her second year taking the yearbook class, Wilkes not only set the vision for this year’s publication, she also—along with several other second year students—helps to lead and guide the seventh graders in the class.
“If the class is having problems with the actual program of InDesign, I give them a few hints and direct them back on their path so that they can experience it for themselves,” she said. “Or if they need help getting quotes but don’t know people, I’ll refer them to a person or tell them where they can find them, so the student grows in their own learning, they’re doing it themselves and I just guide them in the right way and give them a friendly shove.”
Wilkes also believes there are a lot of additional life skills she is gaining in the class that will benefit her moving forward, such as the 4C’s of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication.
“There’s definitely a lot of collaboration, because we’re constantly talking about deadlines, photography and the aspects of their spread that they need. Critical thinking definitely needs to be there because we know we need to get this done on time because we’re facing real life deadlines, you can’t just ask for an extension. Creativity—each student has their own spin on a spread and they put their own quotes in, and when they’re doing their interviews it’s in their own words. With communication, we all talk to each other, we talk to our adviser, if a student needs help they’ll talk to editors, for photography they’ll talk to our photo editor. It’s a cool thing, it’s not like a closed-box environment, we’re always sharing what’s going on,” Wilkes said.
“Our number one thing that we emphasize in all of the classes is how do you communicate a message to your audience,” Palmer said. “We talk about who your different audiences are. The audience for our yearbook is our students in 20 years. So that’s a real different mentality for the students to think about.”
Douglas County has one of the highest concentrations of award-winning journalism and yearbook classes in the country. Four members of the Colorado Student Media Association board are Douglas County teachers, including Palmer. Mark Newton at Mountain Vista High School serves as the National Journalism Education Association President. Several other Douglas County schools, like Rock Canyon and Castle View, also have award-winning journalism programs.
“We’ve talked about this on a national scale, Douglas County is kind of a hotbed of what’s happening with student journalism right now,” Palmer said. “When you look at what’s happening here locally, it’s a pretty impressive place to be.”
In fact, at the recent NSPA Convention, Castle Rock Middle School took sixth place in the Best of Show middle school division, Rock Canyon took sixth place for its newspaper, and Legend took tenth. Legend and Castle Rock Middle School yearbooks were also finalists for the Pacemaker Award.
Next year, Sierra will be reintroducing a broadcast video journalism course, which hasn’t been offered in recent years. The course already has 60 students in two sections registered.