Madison’s youngest journalists come together at the Simpson Street Free Press, a youth newspaper designed to engage students academically in a non-traditional school setting. Starting as a neighborhood newspaper and an after-school academic program on Madison’s South Side at the Broadway-Simpson Neighborhood Center, the student newspaper has grown rapidly since its founding in 1992 and currently employs about 250 reporters in middle school and high school. The organization aims to foster an academically challenging environment while also training young students to be leaders in the classroom and their communities.
Deidre Green, SSFP managing editor, says she sees the academic achievement gap playing out among her students but that SSFP is making strides to close the gap. Green joined the community newspaper when she was 12 years old and is familiar with Madison’s school system. She attended Glendale Elementary, Sennett Middle School and La Follete High School before attending and graduating from UW-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2014.
What is your experience with the Simpson Street Free Press?
I began working for SSFP the summer before going into eighth grade. My teacher, who was on the board at the time, recommended me. I progressed in the program, and it really helped my academic career. My grades started to improve, I gained confidence, and I was part of a community. I became a Teen Editor in high school, and then became Managing Editor in 2009 when I graduated high school. I’ve been in the role ever since.
Why have you remained with the program for as long as you have?
I am really committed to our kids. I love building relationships with them and really feel that our program makes a difference in their lives. It helps them to build confidence, build academic skills, and ultimately, to be successful. I love watching them succeed.
Could you explain, in your own words, the two-fold mission of SSFP?
Our first mission is to provide a challenging academic experience for our teen writing staff. We focus on core academic skills. We foster a love of writing and books, history and science, geography, and the arts. We design our lesson plans to make learning fun, cool and doable. We work in tandem with the classroom to best support learning.
Our second mission is to spread messages of achievement, academic success, and community. As an organization, we are all committed and engaged in helping communities fight achievement gaps. Our young people are engaged. They work hard. They influence their peers. They are role models in the community. They are the leaders of tomorrow. We provide them with meaningful roles.
Could you elaborate what this phrase in the second part of SSFP’s mission statement means: “There is no minority achievement gap at the Simpson Street Free Press.”
Our kids come from all different types of backgrounds, but they are achieving at the same rates. Even though they have different skill levels and abilities, they are able to progress and improve and get the help that they need.
I’m specifically looking at the achievement gap in Madison and Dane County. What role do you think SSFP plays in aiding educational disparities?
Our curriculum is research based and incredibly effective at building academic achievement. We help kids who are behind or don’t have the resources to excel and give them the extra attention and work that they need. We also individualize our curriculum to build confidence. We don’t assign sources that are too hard for our kids, but we doassign them sources that are challenging and will help build the skills they need to succeed.
How would you define or describe the achievement gap in Dane County?
The achievement gap in Dane County is among the worst in the nation. We have a huge discrepancy in achievement, and lower-income or minority families and students are suffering because of it.
Do you see effects of the achievement gap playing out with students involved in SSFP?
Yes, of course. When students first come to us, they often are incredibly behind and are not receiving the attention they need during the school day to catch up. These are often low-income or minority students. We keep track of how our students are doing by collecting report cards, checking in with them about how they are doing in their school work, pairing them up with student tutors, etc. After students join SSFP, they start improving. We see the improvement right away and track it.
What do you think the community, schools and policymakers should be doing to alleviate the achievement gap?
Put money on the front lines where it can help the students who can really need it. Fund programs like ours that promote academic achievement. Invest in after-school time, as research shows that after-school hours have the most academic impact on the students who are struggling.
Photos courtesy of Simpson Street Free Press.
This article has been corrected on Sept. 14, 2015 to reflect the correct number of student reporters employed by Simpson Street Free Press.