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Covering Teens: Lessons from the “Raising Kings” Journalists

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Getting heartfelt, personally revealing comments from teenage boys is difficult enough for parents. So reporters Kavitha Cardoza and Cory Turner had to take a few creative risks to get good audio for their National Public Radio series on an all-boys public high school in Washington D.C. last year.

The pair spent a year working on a three-part NPR series titled “Raising Kings: A Year of Love and Struggle at Ron Brown College Prep,” about a public high school designed for male students of color. At one point, Cardoza, who is a correspondent for Public Broadcasting Service’s NewsHour and Education Week, let one of Ron Brown’s students take her recorder overnight during a trip to Atlanta to visit historically black colleges.

“What’s your opinion about Atlanta?” the student asked his classmates. One said he planned to attend Morehouse College, and another said he was interested in Clark Atlanta University’s architecture program.

Another student was more surprised by Atlanta’s creatures than its universities.

“I stepped outside for a couple of minutes and I seen rats!” one replied. “The rat was like an alligator.”

Cardoza and Turner discussed their collaboration at a recent Education Writers Association seminar in New Orleans. (Emily Richmond, EWA’s public editor, moderated the panel.)

Cardoza and Turner, a senior editor with NPR’s education team, delved into the lives of students at Ron Brown high school, which opened in August 2016 with the mission of empowering young men of color and encouraging their emotional and social growth through scholarship, character, and service.

In covering Ron Brown’s inaugural school year — and explaining to listeners why the school itself is so unique— Turner said they tried countless strategies to get the students, who were 14- and 15-year-old boys, to open up to them.

The reporters visited the students’ homes on weekends, spent time one-on-one after school, and even hung out with the students during lunch, he said.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t even bring my microphone,” Turner said. “Just so they knew, like, ‘Oh it’s that guy again.’ And by November it’s, ‘Oh it’s Cory again. Hey man, what’s up?’”

Often, they’d have to turn to administrators or faculty members to voice the situations students were going through — the radio equivalent of writing around something.

“Fourteen-year-old boys are not often effusive,” Turner said. “They don’t want to talk about their feelings. … You’ll hear the students’ voices, but they’re not saying much.”

The section where Cardoza left her recorder with the students was gold, Richmond said.

Cardoza said they also looked for strong characters and compelling elements to illustrate how the faculty and staff running the school expect greatness from their students.

In one episode of the podcast, the school’s principal Ben Williams talks about how he’s the son of a drug-addicted prostitute and uses his own history to get through to the students who are very much like him, she said.

Williams speaks to a crowd of potential students and tells them about the last time he saw his mom, and how she told him to always take care of his brother.

He then tells them he and his brother each became a “ward of the state,” and asks how many of them are familiar with the term. In the audience, Cardoza tells the listener many hands are raised.

“It’s moments like this that drive Ben Williams,” Cardoza says in the first episode of the podcast. “He knows what they’re going through. In their faces, he sees himself.”

Over the course of Ron Brown’s first year, the journalists also wanted to impart how important restorative approaches to student discipline were in changing the course of the students’ lives, Turner said. People like Williams were critical in making that system work, he added.

“At Ron Brown, restorative justice was deeply integrated into the school’s sense of community,” Turner said during the panel. “And that was purposeful, because if students feel deeply invested in their school community — if they feel like, ‘These other 99 students are my family’ — then if you do something that hurts that family, suddenly you feel pain that you didn’t feel before.”

Working together on such an ambitious project had its challenges, the reporters agreed. Cardoza said she had to learn how to let her guard down and understood quickly how important it was to be direct and upfront about her thoughts.

Thankfully, she said, Turner’s experience collaborating with others and general comfort with projects like the Ron Brown series made their partnership easy.

“It was our project. It was never his or mine,” Cardoza said. “I don’t think he could have done it without me, and I couldn’t have done it without him — and I think that’s the kind of best possible way you really feel that.”