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Getting 'The Bear Facts'

Award-winning school paper goes in new directions.

The tables in room C-106 of Lake Braddock Secondary School are scattered with newspapers and Coke cans, and the walls are papered with drafts of news stories. Dry-erase boards display brightly-colored messages and announcements between editors and reporters, and a large deadline calendar sits in a corner. Students walk about the room, exchanging papers and conducting meetings.

With over 50 students making up the staff of "The Bear Facts," Lake Braddock's student newspaper, the newsroom is always busy.

"It gets to be intense," said Tory Altman, Lake Braddock junior and editorial page editor. "[Deadline nights] go from 2:30 until whenever you're done." These nights, she said, editors sometimes stay until 10 p.m. or later.

But the deadline nights are fun, said senior and managing editor Karlyn Williams. "I have a good group of girls to work with," she said. "It's exciting. We're always striving to do better than the last issue."

"The Bear Facts" recently won a first-place award from the Virginia High School League for an editorial on the No Child Left Behind Act. Still, said journalism teacher Daniel Weintraub, change and improvement will always be the driving forces behind the paper. Weintraub, who began teaching journalism at Lake Braddock this year after 12 years as a yearbook teacher at Lee High School in Springfield, brought a new perspective to the paper.

"One of the things I'm trying to get the students to do is change," said Weintraub. "They had it instilled in them that they should continue to do things because it is tradition." He had the class look at examples of student papers from across the country and showed them new ways they could write, design and lay out the paper.

"We're up to a lot of creative things this year," said editor-in-chief Meghan Kennedy, a Lake Braddock senior. On the front page of the upcoming issue, for example, the standard block picture has been ditched for a cutout of two hands reaching out to each other with text surrounding them, illustrating a news story on a gay-straight alliance.

"There was this idea that the front page was a set, structured, unchanging entity," said Weintraub. "The worst thing a student can say is that they are doing things because that's the way it's always been done."

ONE OF the most well-read sections of the school paper is the centerfold spread, said Weintraub. Every issue, the spread is devoted to a single theme: one issue looked at students' cars and driving habits, while another examined attention deficit disorder (ADD). These spreads include student interviews, quizzes, pictures and games and allow for a great deal of creativity in content and layout, he said.

"I love it ... it kind of takes me back to working on the yearbook," said Weintraub.

"Every month we have an interesting idea that people will actually want to read and look at," said junior Rachel Rudebusch, who is in charge of the spread. She mixes up the content from month to month, examining serious problems such as school shootings in one issue and food in the next. A rough draft of the upcoming issue's spread, which tackles traffic law and student's rights, features a graphic of a police car in one corner and a pair of handcuffs in the other, with the words "Law & Order" in large print on the page.

One of Weintraub's goals is to have students look outside the school walls, he said. Lake Braddock was the only high school that covered Gov. Mark Warner's (D) Oct. 24 "State of Education" speech, he said.

For Meghan, who helped cover Warner's speech, the best kind of stories to write are those that look at the big picture.

"I like it when we cover big issues, ones at the state level that affect us," she said. "When you're 16 or 17, it's really cool. It shows the journalist's character."

Meghan, who has worked on the Lake Braddock school paper since she was in middle school, was one of the writers who put together the award-winning editorial. Prompted by the departure of a popular teacher who had not passed the mandatory tests, the article questioned the No Child Left Behind Act.

"If No Child Left Behind is supposed to be good for children and improve students, then why should a teacher with that much respect and respected by that many students be let go before the school year is out?" said Meghan. "I'd rather [the articles] hit home."

For Karlyn, the purpose of the paper is to give parents and students a different perspective. Students can learn about clubs and get acquainted with classmates they might never hear about otherwise in such a large school, she said.

"I want parents to get informed about what's happening at their son or daughter's school, and to give students more knowledge about what goes on in the school instead of being clueless," she said.

Working on the paper will also give students an appreciation of the journalism profession, said Weintraub, who also studied journalism all through high school and college.

"Hopefully, students will learn to respect journalism as much as I do," he said. "Here's a profession very much maligned by people who don’t understand it, but ultimately it's one of the most important professions."