Brownell houses award-winning student newspaper

By: April Lehmbeck | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 10, 2012

 Mac Cimmarrusti and other students work in the classroom lab for the Beat.

Mac Cimmarrusti and other students work in the classroom lab for the Beat.

Photo by April Lehmbeck


GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Corey Ernst stands at the end of the room with a stack full of articles, like a managing editor, telling someone in his crew that he needs copy while another staff member promises that her article will be in tomorrow.

Reporters and editors work at rows of computers and at tables on laptops. It’s a typical newsroom where award-winning journalists set their cap on the next big story, except these journalists are only about 14.

The Beat staffers at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms learned last month that they’ve done it again — they’ve won a Gold distinction through the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association. The students themselves won more than 40 awards for their individual work in various areas of newspaper production.

“This is the third Gold the Beat staff has won in the six-year existence of the newspaper,” Ernst, the newspaper teacher and adviser, said in an email.

“In addition, (Principal) Mike Dib was awarded Administrator of the Year by MIPA,” Ernst said. “Dr. Dib was nominated by the editorial staff of the Beat due to the constant support he has provided over the six years. Dib was only the second middle school administrator ever awarded this distinction by MIPA.”

The program existed previously, but not in its current format. Ernst took over six years ago and transformed it. The students have churned out awards each year for the last six years, including a Bronze, a Silver, a few Golds and even the top honor of a Spartan Award a couple of years ago.

“For four of the six years, we’ve scored Gold or higher,” Ernst said. “We’re considered one of the highest rated papers at the middle school level.”

While they don’t compete directly with the high schools, they are scored with the same system, which means that they’re “scoring higher than some high schools are,” Ernst said.

Ernst credited the caliber of students for the paper’s success.

“They like to write,” he said. “They have a great voice.”

The paper includes a large staff of writers and several student editors.

“It’s a pretty big honor,” said Mac Cimmarrusti, one of the newspaper’s editors, of the awards.

The editors have to pass a test prior to taking on that role to make sure they’re up for the challenge of reading other people’s copy.

“I make corrections,” Cimmarrusti said. “I talk to students about what their goal is to give the reader.”

As an athlete, he said he likes the idea that they can compete and win awards for the newspaper work. Cimmarrusti praised Ernst.

“Having somebody who wants you to win is a good thing,” Cimmarrusti said.

He said the students want to read the paper, and the teachers encourage the students to read it too.

“Everyone knows it’s a good newspaper,” Cimmarrusti said.

Like many of the top editors and writers at the middle school newspaper, Cimmarrusti hopes to go on and write for The Tower at South.

“Many of the editors on North Pointe were editors for the paper here,” Ernst said, adding that there are a number of staff members at South that began at Brownell as well.

“I joke with the high school teachers, ‘I’m your Toledo Mud Hens,’” he said.

While Ernst said in previous years, editors might mostly work on fixing spelling or grammar issues in stories, this year’s crop of editors goes beyond that task. They work with other students on the angles of the stories or other issues with the articles.

“The editors that I have this year are probably some of the best that I’ve had,” Ernst said.

They cover many different types of stories and even write columns. For instance, one issue included a debate on whether there should be a football team at the middle school, with staff writer John Cislo taking the pro and staff writer Jeffrey Valentic questioning whether a team at the middle school level is needed.

They write about the school play, featured alumni and top issues in the district, including stories on the outgoing and incoming superintendents this year. One issue even reviewed a business in the community.

“For the most part, the kids get to write what they want,” Ernst said. “They’re writing what they’re passionate about.”

If students were wondering whether they could chew gum in class, the students covered that battle, too. Another student wrote about her ride-along with local police.

“I, personally, appreciate the freedom that we’re given and the ability that we have to choose our own stories,” editor Haley Vercruysse said.

She plans to go on to write in high school, as well.

It’s not all fun, though; the students tackle serious issues and tough stories even for veteran reporters to write, such as a memorial that appeared in the December issue about a former Brownell teacher who died after a long battle with cancer.

They even have press conferences, including with their principal, which Ernst said is a huge support for the program.

“Corey, I think, has brought passion to this,” Dib said, adding that he likes how the students are being empowered through the process. “I think we need to encourage more of that, that independent thinking and taking a stand.

“You want to give the kids as much autonomy as you can,” he said.

Working on the newspaper helps the students grow, as well. Editor Emily Tujaka said she was shy when she first started on the paper at the middle school, but she had to work on that because she needs to talk to people and do interviews for stories.

She also plans to write on the high school paper.

“It made me way more outgoing,” she said. “It really made me come out of my shell.”

Tujaka definitely likes that the paper has been recognized for the staff’s hard work with the awards.

“We want to be the best paper that we can possibly be,” she said, adding that they’re always open to constructive criticism if it can make it even better.

The paper launched its first online edition, The Upbeat, this year with plans to expand that edition next year. It includes photo galleries, polls and timely news.

“One of our kids came up with Upbeat, like upload,” Ernst said.

“It’s a work in progress,” Ernst said, adding that they’re hoping to add video to go along with the stories. “Our ultimate goal is we want to work more with the broadcast journalism class we have.”