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Columbia Spectator Staff

High school newspapers have a reputation for attracting top-notch students, or so says Erick Gordon, director of the Student Press Initiative at Teachers College. With Gordon's program reaching out to schools in underprivileged communities, more students now have the opportunity to show off their journalistic knack.

Founded by Gordon six years ago, the SPI starts curriculum-based publications at city schools, often targeting the "neediest" classrooms. The program has worked with students in grade school and high school and with prison inmates.

Gordon said the program does not try to supplant existing curriculums at its partner schools, but instead seeks to enhance them, "partnering with teachers to co-plan curriculum."

Currently partnered with 14 schools, SPI focuses most on students who are often six or seven grade levels behind. According to Gordon, students often say it is the hardest work they have ever done.

"It's the belief that young people have something valuable to say," Gordon said of the program's inspiration. "It's also about creating a text that has real meaning and potential in the world."

SPI allows students to produce a range of projects. Last year, one school published a book profiling social activism, where each student studied current social causes in the city and wrote a profile on a particular activist, acquiring the chance to learn journalistic basics. In another school, students worked with a group of senior citizens for a year in the Bronx, recording and printing the seniors' oral histories. Last year, the program published 23 books, and this year Gordon expects to put out 30 or more.

Rather than trying to cover "as much as you can" in a year-long curriculum, students develop expertise in a specific niche, striving for what Gordon calls a level of "genre mastery."

"The typical version of high school, middle school publication, I think, is usually a pretty elite one—usually the best writers write for the publication," Gordon said. "But what we're doing is we're creating ... year-long publication projects where every student in the grade writes toward the publication."

Grading the students involved in the project varies from site to site, but Gordon aims to not emphasize marks.

Beyond benefiting the adolescents, adults also gain from the program.

"The work with the teachers is also meaningful and valuable to us," said Kerry McKibbin, senior curriculum consultant for SPI. "Having had the students have this experience and the teachers have this experience is pretty powerful."

Aviva Erlich contributed to this article.

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