It is moments before the signature “3-2-1” call from the director on the studio floor and students from Olathe (Kansas) Northwest High School are busily readying themselves offstage. From producers to directors to anchors to sideline reporters, all are in synch in those precious last seconds before they get the cue that they are on the air.
Call it a high school version of ESPN.
And deep behind the scenes is educator Jeff Cooper, a faculty member of Olathe Northwest’s e-Communication Academy and the administrator who sees this play out daily for the school community. The scurry of activity, the attention to detail and the high levels of professionalism have him beaming.
“It is great stuff,” said Cooper, a former professional journalist now in his sixth year at the school. “Year after year, the program sells itself. We have some of the best students in the school. It is an elite program that requires maximum effort in many levels of the communications field.”
Cooper’s curriculum focuses heavily on journalism and the video elements. He is also incorporating a sports information component that will pave the way to the creation of media guides filled with statistics and releases written by students. The students host a daily show covering news and sports, both nationally and at the local level. When the school district invested in video boards for its outdoor stadium, it created a multitude of reporting possibilities, including transmission of GameDay Northwest and Raven Roundup.
On game days in numerous activities, students serve as the producers, directors, play-by-play announcers, color analysts and sideline reporters. Olathe Northwest is also contracted with the Pixellot/NFHS Network which generates more opportunities for journalistic experience, both in front of the camera and in preparations behind the scenes.
“I received a plethora of hands-on experience with pre-production, post-production and everything in between, as well as with business-standard equipment and software,” said Alex Pauli, a 2021 Olathe Northwest graduate. “Along with being incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, the class revealed a major passion of mine and prepared me for continuing that in college and my future career.”
In late August, Cooper’s crew hosted a Media Day that featured all of Olathe Northwest’s fall athletics. Coaches and athletes were invited to participate in sessions that previewed the season. Students created interview questions, conducted research and wrote scripts and releases. The mainstream media is invited through press releases and other promotional avenues. The event was broadcast on the school’s YouTube channel. Cooper said the event is a great experiential learning piece for his students and will be a continued practice for future students.
“The Sports Information Director (curriculum) gave me the opportunity to have an advantage in my future career in addition to creating relationships with my peers,” said Holly McCormick, a 2021 graduate. “The class helped improve my overall high school experience.”
Graduation for students enrolled in the program completes a journey that began in eighth grade with the application process. Each year, up to 100 students are selected.
In their freshmen year, students receive an introduction into video production, animation, graphic design and web design. During their sophomore year, students may select two focus areas. In their junior and senior years, it is one area of focus ranging from video to sports information to video entertainment.
“By the time they graduate, these students are so tech-savvy and ready to take that next step,” Cooper said. “Life skills that are so vital are learned here; communications, leading others, project management, all of it. They love seeing their work on the big screen. We need to copy what is being done in the industry. They need that real-world experience. If that teleprompter doesn’t work, they need to know how to push through it, just like life. They wouldn’t have these same experiences if they had to sit and listen to me lecture in front of the class. They want to get out there and be a part of something real.”
Some of the Olathe Northwest student-athletes who are being covered now are part of the program. Cooper said he has had starting running backs and wide receivers, standout volleyball players and gymnasts be part of the curriculum. While they are competing, the demands are lessened, but when they are out of season, Cooper acknowledges he will expect more.
Cooper said the current generation of students gravitates toward the visual aspect of news and information. His vision for the program is to put an increasing emphasis on the Sports Information program because of the great demand for statistics, information and notes.
“They are starting to understand the writing piece more and more,” he said. “I want to help them with their writing. It is so important to teach them the inverted pyramid. Strong writing is so important for writing everything from scripts to articles for an online newspaper. They are so used to texting and snapchat. If we did a sports recap, they would write two or three lines because that’s what they are accustomed to. It’s been a challenge and journey, but well worth it when they discover the value of being a strong writer.”
In continuing to build the school’s student media programs, Cooper stresses that patience is part of the learning process.
“We want to dream big, but know you can’t do it all overnight,” he said. “Kids need that balance in high school life, but we always try to push the envelope just a bit so that they are challenged. I believe it is important to let the students have a voice. They come up with great ideas and we have the curriculum to support that. Let your students have the freedom to dream and be creative.”
Tim Leighton is communications coordinator with the Minnesota State High School League and is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.