INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The student reporters at Marshall Street Elementary School in West Norriton peppered school nurse Trudy Rodgers with questions during a news conference in Room 41.
How long have you been a nurse? Do students pretend to be sick? When is the last time you took a sick day? What was your biggest challenge?
Then came the kind of bombshell that all reporters wait for. Rodgers revealed that earlier in the day she had performed chest compressions on a student whose breathing had become irregular and whose lips had turned blue.
The 9- and 10-year-old journalists had extracted news worthy of a lead story in the next edition of the Marshall Street Healthy Bulletin.
The classroom news conference - and the budding reporters who conducted it - are part of Healthy NewsWorks, a student media initiative in 11 area schools that uses journalism as a way to educate students about health issues and healthy lifestyles.
Students and their teachers in grades three through eight produce quarterly newspapers under the guidance of program cofounder and journalist Marian Uhlman, an award-winning reporter who formerly covered health issues at The Inquirer.
"This is not a journalism project, but a public-health project," said Uhlman, of Drexel Hill. "The idea is to provide information on healthy living, and it needs to be done at a young age."
But literacy education is an important part of the program, Uhlman said. The students are learning to write stories about health, nutrition, and safety. They have tackled healthy lunches and snacks, food pantries, exercising in the classroom, yoga, and bullying; one student wrote a first-person account of living with diabetes.
About 170 students are in the program. Six schools in the Norristown Area School District are participating, along with two each in Upper Darby and Philadelphia, and one in Haverford Township. Another program is tentatively scheduled to begin in February.
The young reporters are helping to produce a type of publication rarely found in elementary and middle schools, said Mark Levin, director of the 750-member National Elementary Schools Press Association, which helps elementary and middle schools start and maintain newspapers.
Few, if any, school publications focus on one subject, such as health, Levin said.
The Healthy NewsWorks journalists have covered conventions hosted by the American Public Health Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2009, Healthy NewsWorks reporters interviewed Steven Galson, then the acting U.S. surgeon general.
"It's fun to go out there and grab the information," said reporter Patrick O'Brien, 9, who writes for the Marshall Street Healthy Bulletin. Health "is a big matter right now, and if we can show people ways to help in the matters of health, it makes the newspaper important to read."
Teachers and Uhlman help students learn how to prepare pertinent questions, interview a subject, research a topic, and write what they've learned in paragraph form.
"This teaches them how to write and interview," said teacher Cheryl Levine, an adviser for the program at Hancock Elementary School in Norristown. "They become confident, and when they see the paper, they're so excited."
The result is a staff of young reporters who become the "health messengers" of not only the school, but also the surrounding community, Uhlman said. The newspapers have a total circulation of 6,000 and are sent home with all students in the schools.
Students who are not on the newspaper staff and their families are encouraged to submit items for the paper, including illustrations, health-conscious recipes, or poetry with health-oriented themes.
"Health issues are under-addressed," said Nancy Erickson, a nurse at Highland Park Elementary School in Upper Darby and a member of the Healthy NewsWorks advisory board. "It's like music or art. It's something that everybody knows is important, but it often goes to the bottom and middle of the pile as a priority."
The program - initially called Healthy Times - is funded by donations from groups such as the Green Tree Community Health Foundation, which has donated a total of $60,000 to the program. Healthy NewsWorks' annual budget is currently less than $100,000.
Uhlman founded the program in 2003 with Susan Spencer, a literacy coach at Aronimink Elementary School in Upper Darby. Spencer, who taught Uhlman's daughter Dana, had an interest in journalism. Uhlman and Spencer were discussing health issues one day when Dana, then 8, suggested starting a school newspaper.
Ultimately, the founders would like to offer Spanish-language newspapers, provide online content including podcasts, and foster the kind of community involvement that can make the program self-sustaining.
The students appear to be ready and willing. Katia Morales, 10, a reporter for the Hancock Healthy Times at Norristown's Hancock Elementary, used a computer at Burger King to research a story on bullying because her home computer wasn't working. The results of her research filled five pages.
Morales said she liked being a reporter and researching topics such as the one she called a big health problem for kids: being sedentary, or, as she put it, "just sitting there watching TV or playing video games."
The solution is "getting exercise and eating right," Morales said. "That's how you get more healthier."