Lights, Camera, Lesson Plan
It was a heady day for the staff and students of the Poughkeepsie Middle School, a struggling institution just 82 miles north of Manhattan. The students and faculty were greeted by U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Discovery Channel CEO and President Judith A. McHale for the grand opening of the middle school's new state-of-the-art television studio.
Bedecked with professional-quality equipment supplied by The Discovery Channel and Time-Warner Cable, the studio will allow teachers to train and educate a new generation of media-savvy students who see computers and television as one more method of receiving and disseminating information.
The debate on televisions in the classroom is long over. If your school district does not have a television studio with professional-level equipment, your students are on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Dubbed the Discovery Channel Media Education center, this new facility will allow students to create their own multimedia programming and learn the technology behind making videos and television programs.
To make sure the students use the equipment properly, the school has spent a good deal of time training the teachers how the media software and hardware works and what it can accomplish. Assistant Superintendent Dwight Paine says there is a long waiting list of students interested in the media program.
Why a room full of high-end, professional-quality media equipment for a struggling school district that might be in need of other, perhaps more traditional, resources? It's simple: promoting creativity, exposing students to potential careers in media production and adding another notch to a school's resume. "The number of vocations related to TV production and broadcasting are considerable," says Paine. "This is a way of introducing that to our students. You can discover a passion you didn't know you had and you can work hard in your course work in order to achieve that."
The impressive equipment in the new Media Center consists of three cameras, a video switcher and an audio mixer. As part of a mentoring program, representatives from The Discovery Channel will teach Poughkeepsie Middle School educators and students how to operate unitedstreaming, a digital video educational library that has been made available to all New York schools for free. In terms of infrastructure, the middle school was rewired with cable access by Time Warner Cable. Paine estimates that the price tag of the equipment alone comes to $300,000, although press reports list it as $170,000.
Senator Clinton's staff suggested this particular school for a variety of reasons. The school district has been plagued by low test scores and the middle school has been threatened with a state takeover. In fact, this year's budget included teacher layoffs that, according to The Poughkeepsie Journal, have not happened in years. With these challenges and Poughkeepsie's proximity to Manhattan, the school was the perfect choice, says Michelle Russo, spokeswoman for The Discovery Channel. "Poughkeepsie tends to be an under-resourced area. We have a large New York office and the plan with Poughkeepsie is to have some mentoring and volunteerism between our employees and students." She adds that The Discovery Channel didn't want to bestow the studio on a school that may take it for granted. "We didn't want to pick a school in Manhattan that may already have state-of-the-art technology, so we went a little bit out of the city to fulfill a need."
Programming on Hold
"It's still in the planning phase, but we are beginning to use the studio," says Paine. "We have to train teachers and students, which we are in the process of doing." Once everyone is up to speed, Paine says the potential is limitless. "With the new facility, students can incorporate components of television production into their academic program including scriptwriting, editing, research, public speaking and related mathematics and business aspects. The studio will also be used to produce in-school programs ranging from daily announcements to short documentary films."
Media, Media Everywhere
Media rooms inside middle-class and well-to-do school districts are nothing new. A quick trip to Google shows the polished home pages of several middle and high school television stations across the country. Thanks to the bargain-basement prices of the editing software, cameras and broadcast technology, and the ubiquity of powerful computers in the classrooms, creating cutting-edge video content is easier than ever.
This wasn't always the case. According to Kate Currier Moody of the Center for Media Literacy, the first television studio in an elementary school was at the Murray Avenue Elementary School in Larchmont, N.Y., in 1966. (Coincidentally, that school is about 60 miles south of Poughkeepsie.) September 1966 saw the debut of The Morning Show, a
student-and-teacher run version of NBC's The Today Show.
The three-camera operation included a TV distribution system that was installed at five other schools within the district. The total cost, covered by state funds and the Ford Foundation, came to $28,387, according to Moody. The 10-minute daily broadcast consisted of happy birthday wishes, the day in history, local news and school announcements. The Murray Avenue Elementary School's studio included three cameras, spotlights, tape decks and a master console. That November, then-Today Show hosts Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs broadcast from the school to highlight a new era in education.
Phil Albinus is the editor of Waters, a financial technology magazine. He lives in Ossining, N.Y.