Good things are happening in Room E9.
This is where Advisor Sanjit Roy teaches Journalism at Milpitas High School (MHS). His class is small, averaging less than 20 students each year. He hopes to change that by opening enrollment to Freshmen and Sophomores. But for now, his scrappy band of student journalists is just enough. Journalism may not be one of the more popular activities on campus, but it is arguably one of the most powerful, an outlet for student voices that would not otherwise be heard.
“When you mention high school newspaper, a lot of people imagine a flimsy little newsletter or something similar,” says Roy. “But we’re a real newspaper.” The Union, as it is called, comes out every six weeks. That’s six issues per year, including an April Fools edition called The Onion (based on the famous satirical newspaper of the same name). Each issue averages 16 pages. 1,000 copies of each edition are printed and distributed to classrooms. The district funds most of the printing costs, which are supplemented by ads from local businesses.
The Union is also published online at mhstheunion.com. Here you can find a digital copy of the print newspaper, as well as bonus materials unique to the website. They publish to Instagram, as well. It’s a lot of content created by a skeleton crew. “Most of the instruction comes in the first six weeks,” says Roy. “That’s when we go over news writing styles, AP format, free speech issues, etc. After that it’s completely student run. They choose what we write about and decide on the layout.”
Editor-in-Chief (EIC) Savan Bollu, a senior, admits that it can be challenging, especially when creating the first issue of the year, when no positions have yet been assigned. “I really had to learn how to take initiative and how to delegate, and I think that process helped prepare me for anything. It was very chaotic, but I think we’re off to a good start.”
As with the other members of the editorial staff at The Union, Bollu has learned mostly by watching others, asking questions, and improvising. Students choose their own positions based on interest and skillset, with priority given to seniors. Within each section (there are seven – News, Features, Sports, Entertainment, Lifestyle, Spread, and Opinion/Editorials) an Editor and an Assistant Editor collaborate, decide on content, assign and edit stories, and manage the layout. They also provide guidance to the writers, suggest interview questions and angles, double check sources, and ensure that all facts are accurate.
It’s a staff structure that mimics that of most national newspapers, and from all appearances looks very much like a student-run business, with a fairly sophisticated work flow process. Each cycle begins with a brainstorming session involving the entire class, where article ideas are logged onto a master spreadsheet. Students then pick which stories to work on and go over the angle with their editors, lining up interviews and doing basic research. Initial drafts are reviewed and copy edited by classmates, then by the editors, EIC, and finally by Mr. Roy.
It can all be a little overwhelming, especially for somebody new to the job. Roy began teaching Journalism at MHS in 2020, just as the pandemic was sweeping across the nation. Says Roy, “That first year it was all online. I definitely learned a lot.” While Roy had been teaching English at MHS since 2006, this was his first foray into teaching Journalism. The previous adviser, Jeff Colburn, hand-picked Roy to take his place. “It was an honor, really, “ says Roy. “He was my mentor.”
Roy admits the class is growing on him, and while he has always liked being informed, teaching Journalism has given him a newfound respect for these young, aspiring journalists and their mission of educating the campus community while representing different voices. He remembers last year’s EIC, Riya Vyas, and a story she ran on the resignation of two MSH teachers who had been accused of inappropriate behavior. “Riya did such a great job. She was careful with her sources and made sure we were following the law. It was a tough assignment from a journalist’s perspective, having to report on accusations and not really knowing how serious they were at the time.”
Roy helped Vyas submit public records requests to the Milpitas Unified School District and the Milpitas Police Department to obtain evidence for the article. The story ran in the April 2023 issue of The Union, and the news was later reported on by The Milpitas Beat.
Says Vyas, “So I originally started following the story in 2022 based on student gossip. Usually these stories don’t really go anywhere. There were rumors that a teacher had been escorted off campus by police. I was able to interview a student who could confirm the rumors, which led to 10 other students stepping forward and sharing their experiences being in this teacher’s classroom. Then I found out that there had been an administrative investigation into this teacher. After submitting a public records request, we discovered that there were in fact two teachers who had been allowed to resign after substantial investigations into sexual misconduct.”
Vyas was recently honored at the fall Journalism Education Association (JEA)/National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA) High School Journalism Convention in Boston by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), which bestowed upon her the inaugural Student Freedom of Information Award. According to the SPLC website: “Vyas is recognized for her use of public records to report that her school had allowed teachers accused of inappropriate behavior toward students to resign quietly rather than pursue formal dismissals. The practice is a national issue that can permit offenders to find jobs at other schools, which The Union noted can continue the cycle of harassment and abuse.”
Also from the SPLC article: “This is a phenomenal use of public records laws that demonstrates the power of journalism,” said David Cuillier, director of the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida. “We hope other high school students are inspired to shed light on their schools through freedom of information.”
While there has been a limited formal response from the school district and MHS staff who were involved in this story, Roy describes a recent visit to his classroom by the Superintendent and Board President. “They knew we were working on it. They didn’t mention it, but I’m sure their visit was in response to the article. We want to have a good relationship with the school, obviously, but there are laws that protect student journalists. Their voices cannot be censored.”
Vyas, who is now attending UC Berkeley, is grateful for the opportunities that journalism has provided. “Journalism has been one of the most transformative experiences of my high school career. Coming in, I didn’t really know anything about journalism. I just thought it would be fun to write. But it completely changes the way you think about your community and your school. I understand now how the news can impact policy or create social change. It has helped me think more about the world and how I interact with others. Instead of making judgements, I can see the merits of another perspective, even when I disagree.”
Bollu has also seen the power news writing can have. In a December 2022 article entitled “Some students feel left behind by buses”, she reported on an issue where special after school busses run by the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) were filling up and leaving kids behind. Her story sparked a student petition, which prompted the VTA to add another bus. Says Bollu, “Journalism has changed the way I express myself. Before, if I had an issue with something, I would just rant about it to my friends and family. But now I can write an opinion piece about it. I’ve seen how my articles can impact the community.”
David Rendon was the Entertainment Editor last year. He has since graduated and is now attending USC, where he is majoring in Journalism. He credits the MHS Journalism class with changing his perspective. “One of my goals has always been to try and tell marginalized stories. In April 2023 I wrote a story on trans and gender non-conforming students and their experience on campus. I was really proud of that article because it was something that The Union hadn’t really covered before.” The story received positive reviews from students and staff alike.
Erick Johnson, a senior, is the current Sports Editor. He is thankful for the MHS Journalism program for helping him to improve his communication skills. “I used to think of our school campus as a bunch of small social circles. But that’s not true. I’ve come to realize that our campus, and the world, is just one giant social circle. We’re all connected somehow.”
Roy is the first to admit that there are several areas of the program that could use improvement. He hopes to someday include more skillsets in the students’ training, like photo journalism and podcasting. He is also aware of all the contests and awards available to high school programs. “I’m still so new to this, “ he says. “There is so much more to explore. I think if we focus on our print newspaper and really put out a quality product, then more students will want to be involved in what we’re doing.”