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High school journalism removed from Opportunity Scholarship

South Dakota Board of Regents cited differences between newspaper and yearbook programs but didn't tell teachers. Schools can apply for a waiver.

High school journalism removed from Opportunity Scholarship
The Statesman, the student newspaper at Sioux Falls Lincoln High School, received a South Dakota High School Association award for "Superior Newspaper" in 2023. (Photo: KELO-TV)

High school journalism courses no longer count toward South Dakota's general merit-based scholarship, though schools can seek a waiver, and teachers in the state haven't been told why.

"There was never any knowledge of this being an issue, and the school district didn't know about it either, as far as I know," said Katie Kroeze, journalism teacher and adviser for the school newspaper at Sioux Falls Lincoln High School. "So we weren't even given the option to voice our opinions before it was passed."

The South Dakota Board of Regents (SDBOR), which governs the state's six public universities, provides up to $7,500 over four years for students who attend an eligible institution through the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship.

Eligibility is based on curriculum requirements and ACT scores. As of fall 2023, 3,515 students in South Dakota were receiving the scholarship, said Nathan Lukkes, executive director for the SDBOR.

Regents: Journalism not included because of content standards

The South Dakota Department of Education (SDDOE) and the SDBOR work together to identify which courses apply toward the scholarship requirements, said Lukkes.

"They look at the content standards of the course to determine what qualifies and what doesn't," he said.

In the past, journalism was included in the English unit but was removed because of how the course varied from school district to school district, and the courses didn't have the content standards and couldn't be "holistically" verified, Lukkes said.

"(In) some instances, journalism was an extracurricular activity versus an actual course," he said. "So there really weren't content standards from a course curriculum standpoint to align or compare it to."

Journalism programs were given no warning

Before the decision was made, high school journalism teachers and program heads were given no information about this happening, Kroeze said.

Her department thought the decision was based on the rigor of the program, but the SDBOR never reached out to them or looked at their curriculum, she said.

"We were never given the option to back up what the rigor is of our journalism program," she said. "I was never (sought) out to ask, 'What does my curriculum look like?' or, 'How rigorous is it?'"

Impact on high school, college journalism

Taking journalism out as an elective option for the Opportunity Scholarship might impact the number of students that take the course, Kroeze said.

"It may lower the numbers for the courses. I am lucky I'm at a larger school that has a very strong journalism program, where it might not be as impacted as maybe a smaller school district that (is) already struggling getting kids to take newspaper or yearbook," she said.

Some students will sign up for journalism just for the credit and become interested in it after taking the course and consider it as a possible career path. But this decision will lower the chances of that happening, Kroeze said

"Journalism is very important in our state to ensure that we have good journalists, good programs that are preparing them to be good journalists and having those opportunities for those kids that are interested in that career path," she said.

Journalism courses may still be accepted

Schools can apply to get their journalism courses accepted as a qualifying course for the Opportunity Scholarship by applying for a waiver through the SDBOR.

"If a school district does, in fact, have a journalism course that meets the English content standards, they can apply for a waiver and then get the course counted towards one of the one of the English blocks. Otherwise it would default to an elective," Lukkes said.

The school district needs to contact the Department of Education to get the course approved, as it must be an actual high school course and not an extracurricular activity. This would fall under the same guidelines as oral interpretation, Shuree Mortenson, director of communication for SDBOR, said in an email.

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The district must be granted a substitution for the required high school unit offerings waiver by the DOE to be eligible for a writing credit, she said.

But this may not be as easy as it seems.

Kroeze said she has looked for the forms on the Board of Regents website but had little success.

"It's very difficult to find what forms need to be filled out, or they're very, very detailed and take a lot of time," she said.

Lincoln High School's plan going forward

Kroeze plans to contact the SDBOR to get the school's journalism program back to counting toward the Opportunity Scholarship.

"The best decision here is probably just to go directly to the Board of Regents and then just reaching out to journalism professors in the state schools of South Dakota and seeing if there's anything they can do to help," she said.

Kroeze said journalism is a great option for an English elective and should still be included in the English block because it includes all different areas of the curriculum.

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"There's the writing element: they're brainstorming, they're developing a story, they're editing the story, they're revising it over and over and over. And then not only is it written, it's also published for people to see," she said.

Students also learn interviewing and research skills during the journalism courses and learn about different issues that are going on in their community, Kroeze said.

"All of those things are incorporated into the standards that we have in South Dakota English standards and writing standards. And so it really is disappointing to me that journalism isn't seen as a course that could live up to those standards of being an English (unit)," she said.

This story was produced by South Dakota News Watch, an independent, nonprofit news organization. Read more in-depth stories at sdnewswatch.org and sign up for an email every few days to get stories as soon as they're published. Contact Greta Goede at info@sdnewswatch.org.