NEW ORLEANS — The young staff of the recently revived Charger Times at O. Perry Walker College and Preparatory High School are passionate about writing, bravely tackling stories about homeless students, painful lessons of adolescence and cyber bullying.
They want to be novelists, television newscasters, and newspaper reporters. They want to be voices of change against what they see as unjust.
They are also award-winning, with the Algiers school having cleaned up with 22 awards at the Louisiana Scholastic Press Association Newspaper conference in October.
Executive editor and junior Jabari Lewis wants to write the next great American novel. For now, Lewis is working on starting a black youth press and news wire. For two different stories, he recently explored what the concepts of “respect” and “loyalty” mean to his fellow students. He is currently working on a story about how gay and lesbian students are treated differently. Lewis won three of the awards.
“I like human interest,” Lewis said. “I like pieces that make you think.”
Lewis said the students are encouraged to pursue their own ideas.
Class adviser Glenda McQueen, a former newspaper reporter and owner of a travel magazine, said that at the insistence of Principal Mary Laurie, the formerly defunct paper was brought back to life under McQueen’s guidance four years ago.
McQueen teaches the students about the importance of balance and requires them to talk to a minimum of three people for each story. She requires each student to learn the First Amendment, and understand its meaning.
“It’s not only an occupation,” she said. “It’s protected by the First Amendment.”
During brainstorming sessions, McQueen said, every idea is accepted, and then they narrow it down from there. Each student must write a minimum of three stories per issue for a quarterly publication.
“We pull from everywhere — all our different experiences,” Lewis said.
Zia Sanders, a junior who writes in her journal multiple times a day and plans to write a book, wrote a story about “boys being too physical with girls.”
“It’s a big issue everywhere, not just at school,” she said.
Sanders said she enjoys writing on topics she wouldn’t have otherwise known about, and the chance to “talk to other people and put into words how they feel about things.”
Sophomore Keshon Zanders wrote a story exploring lessons “learned the hard way” about friendships that are “not always as friendly as they seem,” and about letting go of anger.
Zanders said telling a personal story was hard at first, but she wasn’t writing it for herself, she was writing “to let others see what I’ve been through so others can avoid it.”
Junior Shannon Watson, who wrote a story about the daily life of an anonymous homeless student and won four of the awards, said that many people were surprised to learn that homelessness was an issue at the school.
In addition to teaching writing, interviewing, investigating and researching skills, McQueen said, the paper allows the “students at school to have their own voice,” with “stories from the students’ perspectives — by students and for students.”
For Principal Laurie, the class that creates the newspaper is part of ensuring the survival of democracy.
“One pillar of democracy is a free and non-biased press, and that does not happen by chance,” Laurie said.
“We have to grow individuals to take on that responsibility.”