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Southwest Star Concept students have it covered in school newspaper

Sophomore Andrew Kramer (left), who writes for The Star, assists the newspaper's layout editors, senior Bryan Wurdeman (center) and David Reyes (right) Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the publication deadline.

OKABENA -- Reporters stared at their laptops intently in the hushed atmosphere of the newsroom Tuesday, with copy editors scanning stories for errors and photographers placing pictures on pages in a last-ditch effort to make the deadline.

With just two minutes to spare, the fourth issue of The Star -- Southwest Star Concept School's weekly student newspaper -- was complete, for print and online readers alike.

"I think the kids have a lot of fun with it," said Doyle Zellar, who teaches SSC's journalism class and orchestrates production of its paper. "I pretty much turn them loose."

After writing and printing the three previous issues, the newspaper's staff of 27 knew what they had to do, despite coping with the everyday challenges of news production -- a missing editor-in-chief, stories that didn't turn out quite as expected and a few loose ends that needed to be tucked in.

They also had to cope with challenges other newspapers don't normally face -- part of the class had to leave school early to get to a track meet, leaving The Star short-staffed.

The five section editors and two copy editors stepped up to the leadership plate and the writers, photographer and two layout editors pulled together to produce Issue 4.

While a few print copies of the paper are available at the school, most students read it online by visiting and clicking on the "School Newspaper" link at the top right of the page.

Issue 4, like its predecessors, features sections devoted to School News, Sports, Extra-curriculars, Entertainment, Life and Miscellaneous. Its front page contains a prom preview story and a hard news story about the SSC administration's budget cut proposals. Inside are senior profiles, sports stories, a want ad for used instruments, a piece on The Star's fishing contest, a letter to the editor, recipes, games, a preview of the state FFA competition, interviews, poems, movie reviews and short features on the school greenhouse, trail cameras, cell phone etiquette and health food.

The students come up with their own ideas about what to write, with Zellar's assistance, and most pen two to four stories a week. Footwork for the articles is done outside of class, from interviewing to event coverage to scheduling the photographer.

They are graded both on their individual contributions and the finished product.

Mark Ferguson, a sophomore, is the editor of the Miscellaneous section, which features puzzles, a picture page and whatever doesn't quite fit in any other section of The Star. For each issue, he checks over each of his section's pages to ensure everything is correct.

"It's kind of fun," Ferguson said. "It's just something to try, and I'm liking it."

Many of the students wear multiple journalistic hats, writing, editing and finding pictures just like they would in a real newsroom.

Sports editor Riley Place, a junior, also writes baseball stories -- despite being on the school's baseball team. With the help of his mother, who takes notes during the game, he creates full accounts of each game as objectively as possible.

"I think it's a very good experience for anybody who likes to write. It teaches you how to describe things better," Place said. "I'm very likely going to go to college for journalism, so I find the class very fun."

Zellar's class has allowed Place to improve his vocabulary, as well as his writing and learning skills.

"I encourage anybody who has the opportunity to take a journalism class to take one," Place said. "Not only do you learn writing, you learn about the stuff you're writing about."

As Tuesday's deadline loomed, Place was confident the news staff would finish the paper on time. Sophomore Sadie Volk, the paper's co-editor along with Jacob Lundgren, wasn't quite so confident.

In addition to her copy-editing duties, Volk writes stories for the Life section of The Star, on topics such as health food and dreaming.

"It's really hard to write economically. I like to write flowery," Volk said. "It's hard to shrink it all down and still make it interesting."

Volk has also had the opportunity to cover news, when she attended a school board meeting -- a staple of general newspaper coverage -- and wrote a piece about the revocation of an SSC policy requiring the participation of two-thirds of the students in order to have a class trip.

"I felt like I was invading, but because I was there, I got a news story on it," Volk said. "There's a story anywhere."

She also expressed the frustration common to copy editors everywhere, wishing her writers would scan their own stories more carefully before turning it in.

"Look over your own work before turning it in to us!" Volk said. "(A story) can go through four editors and it can still be wrong."

The current class is Zellar's fourth, and he believes they have been more traditional than his previous groups.

"We've had papers in the past that have caused a lot of controversy," Zellar explained, recalling the taking on school administrators and teachers in print on such issues as cell phone policies and budget cuts. "They've been very traditional, very reserved in their journalism. They haven't reached out into very controversial areas yet."

Rather than attempting to squelch the student newspaper when criticism is published, however, SSC administrators have been supportive of it, recognizing the value of free speech.

The goal of the class may be to produce a paper, but Zellar's goal as its teacher is different.

"I'd really like (students) to become news-savvy," he said. "I'd like them to learn to appreciate news in all its forms, and become aware of what's going on in our world."