February 01, 2003 2 min read
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Thanks to a dedicated teacher and his student ‘staff,’ the means of TV production are in the hands of middle schoolers.

With just one paid part-timer operating outdated machinery, the public-access channel in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, is a modest affair. Give 13-year-old Brian Bredenbeck a chance, though, and it won’t stay that way for long. “I have some ideas so we can get money and sponsors,” he says. “Right now, the channel is wicked boring. It’s just stills, and we plan on spicing it up and putting in commercials.”

Brian is an 8th grader at Birchland Park Middle School, but he and several classmates have already studied television production in a state-of-the-art studio with $500,000 worth of equipment—this one at their school.

Brian Bredenbeck, an 8th grader at Birchland Park Middle School, in the BPTV studio.
—Photo by Sevans

BPTV is the brainchild of Jim O’Hearn, who taught English at Birchland Park for 32 years before assembling the program. “Any good teacher is always looking for ways to make their subject matter palatable to a 13-year-old kid,” he explains. He did so in the early 1980s by letting students develop video projects in lieu of taking final exams; success prompted what he called a crusade to equip the school with a TV studio. In 1996, after 15 years of lobbying, O’Hearn got $10,000 and use of a home ec room. He collected an additional $17,000 himself. The resulting TV production program became so popular that, two years later, blueprints for a new school building included space and resources for the current eight-room studio suite.

Kids join the staff by invitation after completing a course in 7th grade. The daily morning show they produce offers everything from lunch menus to footage from shows and athletic events. The students’ expertise is also tapped by other school groups; a video created for a weight-management club, for example, evolved into 15 minutes of PowerPoint slides, narration, and music clips. And several times a year, an 18-piece “mobile studio” is taken to regional conferences, where staffers stage a 90-minute presentation about BPTV.

That the adolescents do the work is significant to O’Hearn. “It’s always been a point of aggravation to me that people always say, ‘They’re cute when they’re in elementary school, and they’re important when they’re in high school,’” he says. “The capabilities of middle school kids far exceed what people expect.”

Like Brian, 8th grader Lindsay Klofas would like to upgrade the local public-access channel. But working at BPTV has given her more than just technical knowledge. “Keep a sense of humor; anticipate the unexpected and prepare for it,” she says. “We learn life lessons here.”

—Lani Harac

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