The Storytellers: Dominion High School Journalists Rise to the Top

When Mitchell Schwartz took on the newspaper program at Dominion High School in 2005, there were just two students in the class. But that scrappy team and their advisor were determined to put out a paper. Fifteen years later, the school’s news website, DHS Press, is one of the best student publications in the country, with alumni heading to top journalism programs.

Student journalists at the Sterling high school chalk it up to the hands-on, real-world approach that their advisor has taken from day one.

“I always say if we’re going to do it, be professional. I call us a news organization not a class because what we want to do is not classwork and homework,” Schwartz said. “We want to produce quality journalism for the student body, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

This year, the National Scholastic Press Association awarded the DHS Press an All-American ranking, the organization’s highest honor. Judges highlighted DHS journalists’ commitment to covering hard news and creating “diverse and original” content. For current DHS journalists and recent grads, it’s all about a small but committed staff, an advisor who’s willing to take risks and commitment to good storytelling.

“They put their heart and soul into this and that’s what inspires me: to have students who care so much and want to do all these things,” Schwartz said.

Morgan Fischer was editor of the DHS Press for the past two years and is now a first-year student at Arizona State University’s prestigious Cronkite School of Journalism. She said going beyond school walls and tackling national and regional stories with implications for her classmates was a priority. 

As part of a piece on the Virginia US Senate race, the DHS Press Student Reporting Labs team Karen Ramos, Alison Pataky and Morgan Fischer (seated) interviewed Senator Time Kaine at a campaign stop in Fairfax in October, 2018. The piece was distributed via NewsHour Extra as part of a nationwide lesson plan.

“I think it’s important that we were able to cover issues that were happening nationwide that affected our students and our community specifically,” Fischer said. “Students need to know about these issues.”

DHS Press earned accolades for combining high-quality coverage of national and regional political events and local school board and school administration decisions with more traditional student newspaper features such as drama productions and school sports.

Ian Whitfield was a student athlete and journalist at Dominion who took on much of the publication’s sports coverage during his four years at the school. He’s now studying journalism and playing soccer at Ithaca College in New York. Whitfield worked to balance traditional sports coverage, including athlete profiles, with broader issues. His 2018 piece on studies linking Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy with hits to the head in student athletes made waves at the school

For Whitfield, Schwartz’s commitment to hands-on experience and a newsroom-like environment made the difference. 

“Except for the first week of intro to journalism, we didn’t touch a textbook. There were no PowerPoints, no textbooks, worksheets. It was like a college class: hands-on. You talk, you work through it, you break down ideas off one another. It was like a real newspaper association. It felt so real life,” Whitfield said.

In December of 2019, Karen Ramos, a 2020 Dominion High School grad and DHS Press staff member, was recognized as one of four nationwide Student Journalists of the Year at the National Educational Telecommunications Association Annual Conference. Ramos was joined by her parents and journalism advisor Mitchell Schwartz (right).

Schwartz makes a point to get college syllabi from DHS graduates and colleges around the region to create a high-level experience starting with his Intro to Journalism class.

“I always say I want to do real journalism with them. I don’t want to just do fluff pieces. Part of it is entertainment, but I really want to be like a real news organization. I think it’s more interesting for the students and creates a lot more opportunities,” he said.

Sometimes that means a big learning curve for Schwartz as an advisor as the DHS Press moves into broadcasting with 21st century technology. When students wanted to live broadcast a DHS football game with ESPN-style commentary, Schwartz had no idea how to tackle the technology involved. But he and his students learned the ropes and made it happen.

“A lot of this just comes from students who have an idea. My philosophy in the last couple years has been to say yes and then we’ll figure it out,” he said.

For Schwartz, the school’s partnership with PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs has been a game-changer. The national program sets students up with mentors in the field and helps students produce professional-quality broadcast pieces. DHS students’ first SRL piece “Tiny Coders” featured Loudoun’s Code to the Future program for elementary students and aired on NewsHour in April 2018. Karen Ramos, a DHS Press staffer and 2020 Dominion grad, was named NewsHour’s 2019 Student Journalist of the Year, one of just four winners nationwide. 

“I was able to meet so many amazing people through DHS Press and Student Reporting Labs and guests that would come into class. It was an amazing experience overall and one that a lot of other schools really don’t get,” Fischer said.

DHS Press editor Morgan Fischer (right) and colleague Isabella Pearlstein covered the Bernie Sanders campaign stop in Springfield on Feb. 29 ahead of the March 3 Virginia Primary. During her tenure, Fischer made covering national and regional issues, along with school events, a priority.

With Fischer, Whitfield, Ramos and a cohort of talented seniors moving on to college this year, DHS junior Nicole Calderon is one of the underclassmen who will carry the DHS Press into a school year like no other. Calderon has a longtime interest in broadcast journalism that brought her to Schwartz’s Intro to Journalism class her freshman year. She was hooked from day one.

“It’s not like the regular classes that you spend day-to-day at school. It’s a new environment. You don’t have to constantly read textbooks and study for school. You just create what you want to share with the rest of the school and the rest of the world,” Calderon said.

The Student Reporting Labs program has allowed Calderon to tap into her passion for storytelling. She was a producer on the award-winning video feature “No Labels Attached: LatinX Immigrants—‘We Came Here for a Better Life.’” The piece explored negative stereotypes of LatinX students in contrast with their goals, hopes and accomplishments and won a 2020 Quill and Scroll Award for best video feature package.

“A lot of students don’t understand how difficult it is for [LatinX students] to come into a new environment and get used to it. Informing students about other groups at Dominion is important,” Calderon said. “There are obviously so many stories to tell. … Everyone can get a new perspective and get a bigger picture.”

For Schwartz, sparking that passion for storytelling is the essence of his role as a teacher and advisor. While some other schools in the Student Reporting Lab program boast pricey in-house TV studios, the DHS students do it with a camera bag and a commitment to getting the story.

“I say when you get to college, they’ll have the amazing equipment and they’ll teach you how to use it … but it’s really about developing the ability to get people to trust you and talk to you and want to share their story with you, Schwartz said. “That’s the skill that you can get now and that will actually pay much bigger dividends for you.” 

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