PBS Film Picks Up Where Student Newspaper Left Off

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When the Shaker Heights High School newspaper reported in February 1997 that there was a large gap in grades and test scores between black and white students at the Ohio school, it was not especially surprising to observant community members or to school officials who had been trying to close the gap for years.

But the story, and an accompanying chart showing the high failure rates and low scores of black students at the school, exploded like a bomb in the Cleveland-area Shaker Heights community, which prides itself on its 40-year history of local initiatives to promote racial integration. Its respected high school has been seen as a centerpiece of that success.

The article provoked a walkout of black students at the school, a vituperative debate in the community, and weeks of meetings between school leaders and often-angry parents.

The fallout from the article is the subject of a 57-minute documentary, "Shaker Heights: The Struggle for Integration," to be aired nationally by the Public Broadcasting Service on Nov. 27.

New York filmmaker Stuart Math, himself a 1961 graduate of Shaker Heights High, produced the film. His documentary suggests that persistent achievement gaps between the races threaten to make even the best efforts at integration appear hollow.

The film also illustrates the dramatic effect that student journalism can have on a high school.

'Painful' Reaction

Timing heightened the impact of the Shakerite article, people in the school district say.

"For every generation of students, [the issue of the achievement gap] is new, the headline was a real attention grabber, and the story was published during Black History Month," a time that the school administration and many black students felt should celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans, not play up problem areas, said Peggy Caldwell, the communications director for the 5,600-student district.

At the high school, some black students walked out of classes after the newspaper was handed out.

"It was painful, because at Shaker High School there are a large number of African-American kids who are very strong academically," recalled Principal Jack Rumbaugh.

The public focused much criticism on the award-winning Shakerite, which at the time had an all-white staff, on the student who wrote the article, and on the adviser to the paper, English teacher Sally G. Schwartz.

Ms. Schwartz said the staff members were stunned by the reaction but conducted themselves professionally. "They took the heat on it" and invited critics to the newsroom to discuss it, she said.

Susan Murray, a senior at the time who was assisting Mr. Math on his film project and is now studying directing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, argues that the article's impact ultimately was positive.

"I think it did turn into a constructive thing in the long run, in a lot of senses," Ms. Murray, who is black, said in an interview last week. "It really opened up the issue; it brought some things into the light."

It also gave direction to Mr. Math's film. At the time, he was using Ms. Murray and another student, Grayden T. MacLennan, to record interviews with Shaker Heights High students on the general subject of race relations.

The pair alerted Mr. Math to the controversy over the Shakerite article and taped the first meetings of outraged parents; their footage gives the documentary much of its edge.

Mr. Math then decided to focus the film on how the article jolted the community's sense of racial harmony.

Power of the Press

The film notes that the appearance of racial integration often depends on how closely an observer looks.

At Shaker, where the 1,630 students are almost evenly divided between black and white, the racial blend breaks down in Advanced Placement and honors courses, which are predominantly white, and in the lunchroom, which has tables that are all-black and all-white, though some are mixed.

"As a result of the Shakerite, we've had an increase in the number of African-American students selecting honors-level courses and Advanced Placement courses," Principal Rumbaugh said.

The school has also added support services for students who move from regular to advanced courses, beefed up some existing programs to support black scholars, and drawn new support from community organizations.

"It's a perfect example of when you make a free press operate, good things come from it," said Linda S. Puntney, the executive director of the Journalism Education Association, which represents about 2,000 high school media advisers.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Page 5

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as PBS Film Picks Up Where Student Newspaper Left Off
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