FRENCH SETTLEMENT — At 7 a.m. on a recent Wednesday at French Settlement High School, uniformed students holding cups of hot chocolate filed into a small, green-walled classroom by the drop-off area.

Eleventh-grader Brittany Bonin took her seat in a control room and added some last-minute details to the script for the teleprompter. The boys varsity basketball team won 93-35 the night before. Girls also won, but none of the dozen students around knew the score, so they fudged.

Meanwhile, teacher Janet Blankenship stitched together bits of sports footage the students recorded from the games.

In a sort of organized chaos, Jackie Crosby and Brody Bell, best friends, minor celebrities and co-anchors of "French Settlement Live," took their seats on stools before a bright green wall. A crew of kids fiddled with the lights, cameras and microphones.

At 7:29 a.m., they were live — in every classroom at the school and on the desktops and cellphones of many parents and family members at home.

"Good morning, French Settlement! No horsing around, because it’s hump day!" reporter Melanie Tircuit, weather girl Shelby Cambre and sports reporter Jacob Varnado beamed from the studio. Varnado donned a horse mask to underscore the "no horsing around" part. Yes, the daily broadcast allows them to have some fun.

Can't see video below? Click here


The morning broadcast is part of an initiative spearheaded by Livingston Parish School Board member Jim Richardson to teach digital media skills at rural high schools in southern Livingston Parish. In French Settlement, Maurepas and Springfield, students can take an elective class where they learn to record, edit and report TV news. 

"We’re hoping it will catch on, and hopefully it will work out across the parish," Richardson said. 

The high-energy daily news show features morning announcements from the anchors. Correspondents staged throughout the L-shaped former office take turns leading the school in the Pledge of Allegiance, giving a weather forecast and advising what's for lunch. (This particular day, roasted turkey was on the menu.)

Each episode also features kid-in-the-hallway interviews about current events or personal topics. In a festive spirit, the question that Wednesday was, "If you could do something nice for someone this Thanksgiving holiday, what would you do?"

"Before the broadcast, the office would just announce what the lunch is. Maybe a few reminders of sports, but no one really paid attention," Bonin said. "On broadcast, there is something to actually watch." 

Can't see video below? Click here

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

After each day's broadcast, Blankenship leads classes on video and photo editing tools, including Avid, which she said is the premier program used by movie producers. During that time, students also prepare for the next day's show by pulling kids from classes for quick interviews and researching historical bits and factoids.

Blankenship, a longtime friend of Richardson's, splits her time between the three schools. She teaches two one-hour classes in the morning to students at French Settlement and Maurepas, who participate via video conference. In the afternoons, she goes to Springfield to teach digital media there. 

Blankenship touts the program as practical job training for kids interested in digital media and a scholarship opportunity. She said her son received funds to go to college in Florida after he was recruited to film sports events. 

"If they can learn how to do this, if they can learn how to edit, if they can learn how to do a little bit of Photoshop, they can run cameras, lights, they're the whole package," she said. "That's what sets them above everybody else."

Springfield won first prize this year in a statewide competition for its video about the August 2016 floods.

Interest from French Settlement, combined with switching to a block schedule at Springfield, led the Springfield school to drop its morning program, Blankenship said. She still teaches digital media editing there in the afternoons, and the students livestream many of the school's sports games. 

Maurepas also has a daily newscast that Blankenship oversees from afar. She has trained two of the school's teachers to help coordinate  morning broadcasts at that school. The K-12 school frequently features kids of all ages on its broadcast. 

At least one other parish school has developed a digital media program, though it does not have a daily broadcast. At Walker High School, about 55 students take part in a class where they learn to use Adobe software, broadcast school sports games and produce monthly announcement videos, said Assistant Principal Lisette Manuel. Students also film segments featuring local sponsors.

French Settlement High School Principal Lee Hawkins, a regular and self-proclaimed silly character on the broadcast, said the program at his school has been much more than just a good replacement for the intercom. It has taught students to work under pressure, he said, and it's helped to build a community within the school and surrounding area as thousands of people tune into the program daily. 

"Our students have a proud feeling that we have something even some of the bigger schools don't have," Hawkins said. 

Blankenship said she started a similar program at a school in Florida when she was living there in the late 2000s. She said the father of a student on her kids' football team was deployed to Afghanistan and could not watch him play. She raised funds to buy the school a TriCaster — a tool that enables streaming live to the internet — and began capturing each football game, to considerable community enthusiasm. 

"The daddy got to see his son make a touchdown in his senior year for the first time,” she said.

Richardson, a retired principal at French Settlement, said he has been able to use his district's funds to sponsor Blankenship's salary and buy the necessary equipment for each school. 

He and Blankenship said they also are applying for a $500,000 grant from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that funds telemedicine and distance learning to buy additional Polycoms, which are videoconferencing devices. She said the classroom cameras would allow for more virtual experiences and collaborative classes between the rural schools. 

"I’ve always thought that we’re living in a technologically complex world, and more and more opportunities for kids are coming through technology," Richardson said. "I wanted our kids to have (those) opportunities."

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.