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Blue Valley Television gives students a taste of life on the small screen

With the camera rolling,17-year-old Lara Wilinsky faced an amiable-looking older couple. It was her first interview as a journalist, and Wilinsky wondered how exactly to ask about the night the couple's daughter was murdered.

"I was so nervous," says the Blue Valley High School grad. "How do you interview someone about their child getting killed? But that story ended up being what I'm most proud of."

Wilinsky and her reporting partner, Matt Hayward, did the story for Blue Valley Television, which features programs from three Kansas districts. Both staff- and student-produced shows--including the live "Good Morning, Blue Valley"--are done by BVUSD. Coverage runs the gamut, from technology and parenting to events.

Started in 1997 by Bruce McRoberts, a former cable industry executive who moved into teaching, the student broadcast program had humble beginnings. An old music and choir room served as a classroom for 10 students. After researching what was being done nationally, McRoberts lobbied for a real studio. He got it.

The facility's February 2000 completion was ideal, he says. "Pricing for digital video cameras had gone down, so we could basically put in a studio from scratch." Equipment is primarily from Panasonic, including studio cameras and videotape editors. Some Canon miniDV cameras are used for on-location footage. A $25,000 Sprint donation and funds from a district bond made it all possible.

In spring 2000, the BVTV got its first student news team. Building on past successes, students have raised production values and chased down stories. Daily classes are supplemented by evening and weekend work.

"Many districts would be hesitant to give kids a live voice, but our students have always been up to the challenge," McRoberts says. BVTV Executive Director Bob Moore adds, "No one wants to be the student that lets down the whole broadcast team." The program both empowers students and provides the district with a positive communication vehicle, he says.

" I'd look at other broadcast programs and see that the kids would have talent, but the equipment was old and outdated. ... We didn't want poor technology defeating the kids." -Bruce McRoberts, BVTV co-founder and instructor

Stay Tuned

BVTV may be unusual in presenting live broadcasts, but it may not be alone for long. "There's an enormous amount of interest right now in getting students involved in broadcasting," says Av Westin, executive director of the National Television Academy, which awards the Emmy. Westin developed the academy's National Student Television program; its Web site hits have more than doubled in the past year.

"We're seeing video use spreading in schools," says Westin. "Kids that used to write essays about their experiences are now being asked to shoot a video instead."

Wake-up Call

A highlight of BVTV's line-up is "Good Morning, Blue Valley," the only known live, student-produced show on cable television in the nation. News team members take on beat reporter roles, as well as production, story development and anchor duties--acting more like studio executives than anchor desk reporters. The show has won four consecutive National Scholastic Press Association Pacemaker awards, considered the Pulitzer of school media.

Some recent stories featured:

Creation of an elementary school's new broadcasting program

An essay contest at an area cafe

Veteran's Day celebrations in the county

A gymnastic team prepping for a meet.

Superintendent Tom Trigg says students, who have the freedom to choose their stories, tend to gravitate toward community service pieces in particular. Fundraising walks, community gatherings and public service efforts get frequent coverage.

The Winner Is...

Although the Pacemaker awards are notable, BVTV garnered an even higher honor in 2004, when Lara Wilinsky and Matt Hayward won a student Emmy for "Speak Out for Stephanie." It covered the experiences of Gene and Peggy Schmidt, whose 19-year-old daughter was raped and murdered in 1993. Since then, the Schmidts have been active in changing legislation specific to sexual predators. "The story brought greater awareness to the issue," says Gene Schmidt. "And Lara asked some of the best interview questions I've ever heard. More classes like this should definitely be in schools."

The story beat out 400 other entries, and Wilinsky and Hayward were flown to Los Angeles to accept the Emmy. Hayward parlayed the networking opportunity into an internship with Tom Shadyac, who directed the movie Bruce Almighty. He's also working on the ABC show Rodney.

"BVTV had a big part in where I am today," says Hayward. "It's given me certain skills that I'll use for the rest of my life."

Larger Network

As a result of BVTV, teacher Bruce McRoberts has been able to get his students and studio staff involved in efforts beyond Blue Valley. Three years ago, he helped organize a group of broadcast instructors and their students; now more than 100 schools exchange expertise and advice via e-mail and a listserv, and they even hold an annual convention. "Everyone appreciates having a place to come together and work on their problems," he says.

Young and the Restless

BVTV has had a positive effect across the district, says superintendent Trigg. Broadcast groups, in the form of extracurricular clubs, are forming at the middle school and even the elementary school levels. "There are a growing number of kids becoming more interested in broadcast because of what they see these high school students doing," he says.

District stats

Blue Valley Unified School District, Overland Park, KS

No. of schools: 18 elementary, 8 middle, 4 high schools

No. of certified staff: 1,520

No. of students: 19,104

Ethnicity: 88.2% white, 6.2% Asian American or Pacific Islander, 3.3% black, 1.8% Hispanic, 0.3% Native American, 0.2% multi-ethnic

Per-pupil expenditure: $6,083

Dropout rate (2003-2004, grades 7-12): 0.3%

Area population: 107,333

Superintendent: Tom Trigg, since July 2004

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in Saint Louis Park, Minn.