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Student Journalist

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Members of the Port Jefferson school independent news site The Current Peggy Yin, Christopher Parsick and Mattea Rabeno interview Superintendent Jessica Schmettan in late April. Image from PJ Current video

There were no journalism classes in the Port Jefferson School District, no journalism club or school paper. 

It’s something that some Port Jefferson high schoolers saw and thought could be corrected.

A small group of students now run an online newspaper The Current — at www.pjcurrent.com — editing and producing all content while maintaining the website themselves. The site is independent of school staff or admin, and is one of the few places for students in the small school district to practice professional communications and let students know of happenings within the school and the surrounding area.

“I’m incredibly proud of those students who have started that online content.”

— Jessica Schmettan

“At the end of sophomore year it was pretty clear there were a lot of people interested in writing and journalism, but there was really no place for it,” said Peggy Yin, a junior and The Current’s editor in chief. “It was a bunch of people getting together who said we don’t just want a place for us to write, but also to give students the opportunity to explore what they might not have had the opportunity to explore — and show other people what they’re interested in.”

Over the past year, The Current has made huge strides in its editorial content, but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the small team has excelled in giving students and residents a unique perspective on what has been happening in their school, and especially the scientific aspect to the virus. This was handled in partnership with the school’s Science Olympiad team, and articles were edited by science columnist Grant Samara, who himself has interests in math and science. It gave a way for students and community members to understand terms when scientists said “flatten the curve” or vaccine research. The school administration even asked the student journalists if they could participate in the social distancing peer-to-peer initiative of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) to help students learn about the importance of decreasing contact to slow the virus’ spread.

Much of the information, which dates back to April 1, covers topics such as the virus and its impact on the economy, the environment and mental health. There is also a landing page for coronavirus information and has shared links to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, links to updates from New York State and the Village of Port Jefferson.

“I thought there could be a lot more engaging and understanding if [classroom topics] were looked at from a different perspective,” Samara said. “A lot of what I’m writing is about trying to provide that perspective — make it easier to understand and more interesting.”

Massimo Cipriano, a rising senior, has long wanted to be involved in sports journalism, and finally had the opportunity to write about school games when the Royals girls basketball team was making waves earlier this year. Unfortunately, the pandemic cancelled practically all sports for the rest of the school year. His Medium blog, titled “The Step Back With Massimo Cipriano” now includes write-ups of recent soccer matches in Europe which are played to currently empty stadiums. 

The students also set up an interview with Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan that lasted over an hour, talking about issues related to the shutdown and coronavirus in the school district.

“I’m incredibly proud of those students who have started that online content,” Schmettan said. 

It’s work the editors like to say is made “by students, for students.” 

Chris Parsick, a senior who leads the communications team, said faculty and teachers have acknowledged their work, but still all work rests on their shoulders.

“A lot of what I’m writing is about trying to provide that perspective — make it easier to understand and more interesting.”

— Grant Samara

“This year we’ve been really looking to build that mutualistic relationship with the school,” Yin said. That includes the paper’s work with clubs like the Science Olympiad.

Parsick said seeing that acknowledgment from the school has bolstered their work. The goal this year was to get 100 followers on Instagram. Today they are sitting at 114, and the school district was their 100th follower.

All the work is voluntary, including the back end of the website itself. Senior Dylan Scott has run HTML and CSS coding, and is trying to transport the website from WordPress to Ghost, another website hosting platform, which may be more manageable for the students who remain once he graduates. 

Being students, while handling the work of an entire web platform already has its own challenges without also having to take care of schoolwork and normal life. And as students move up and graduate, the issue will be keeping the project going. Several of the editorial staff, including Yin and Samara, will become seniors for the 2020-21 school year; Scott, Cipriano and Parsick will graduate this year. 

The superintendent threw her support behind the student journalists, hoping to see their work continue.

“I hope it continues, and we’ll see,” she said, also mentioning the possibility of journalism classes should there be enough interest in it. “Many started it as 11th-graders, so they will have another year. If we can support them in any way, we’ll try.” 

But through it all, the students maintain the strength of the paper partially comes from the fact it remains independent of the school district, even though it entirely depends on volunteer efforts.

“One of our big selling points is we’re by students, for students,” Yin said. “When you have the school involved it kind of takes that away. We wouldn’t get to control the direction and vision of it.”

This article was updated June 20 to correct the title of Massimo’s blog.