At Voice of OC, working with student journalists has always been a core tenant of our mission. 

Most of our current, full-time reporters started here as student journalists. 

And they’re always excited to mentor others. 

Recently,  Voice of OC’s Report for America Fellow, Brandon Pho, got the opportunity to pay it forward when he collaborated with the News Literary Project and acted as editor for middle school journalist Willa Earnest-Blum, who won the News Literacy Project’s Hometown Headlines contest. 

Every year Report for America corp members do a service project. Projects are usually two fold, educating members of the community about how to produce  journalism, which in turn teaches them to cover and report on their own communities.

“There were a lot of things I had to get a hang of immediately,” Pho said.  

Earnest-Blum wanted to explore the impact returning to in person learning was having on her fellow students at her school, Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) in Los Angeles. 

“We had only three, 30-minute meetings to work with. Essentially, I had 90 minutes to help someone more than 10 years younger than me write an entire article,” recalls Pho. 

“And off the bat, there were things I clearly hadn’t prepared for – one of them being that Willa was super quiet.” said Pho.

“But that was also a good jumping-off point,” Pho said.

“While Willa said little, she did get her point across every time. She needed only say a few words to convey what she was thinking. And I thought, who’s to say the article couldn’t reflect that?” 

“We developed our vision for the piece accordingly; it was going to be concise – like a tiny window into what it was like at her school, but we couldn’t waste a single line doing so. Every sentence had to be packed with meaning. And so the article you see is what we came up with.” concludes Pho.

The News Literacy Project is the nation’s leading provider of news literacy education.

Read Willa Earnest-Blum’s full story here: 

Willa’s article:

Re-entering school life post pandemic made the familiar seem foreign

By Willa Earnest-Blum

The nearly 700 kids at Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) provide a window into an issue that has affected nearly 50 million public school students nationwide.

When schools reopened following pandemic shutdowns, they faced challenges in social settings that weren’t as prominent as before. A once-familiar routine of roll call and reading the day’s schedule on the whiteboard had suddenly become foreign.

Teachers and students started questioning how a return to normal, in-person classroom settings — where one is seen constantly — has impacted those who for so long adapted to logging onto class from the comfort of home.

Students were once behind a screen, free of other people’s eyes. Now every little mistake was amplified by being front and center.

“We started to transition back and forth without time to adapt,” said Kacie Magoski, who is the school counselor for the GALA, adding that it takes time after periods of change “to find a safe space.”

Magoski said that the pandemic lockdown’s “safety protocols” meant students were now “unable to make friends.” In the virtual setting, ideas of “boundaries,” low self-esteem, and beauty standards took the back seat.

But students have had to re-adjust to those factors all at once, Magoski said, meaning students need more support from parents and teachers.

It also has some teachers thinking about what they would have done differently.

“I would have gotten more counseling services for myself and for my daughter because I didn’t anticipate the impact distance learning lockdown isolation in the pandemic would have on us,” said Jessica Valera, a teacher at GALA.

It was personal for Valera, whose own daughter similarly struggled during the pandemic.

“Seeing the struggles of my daughter during distance learning made me more empathetic and understanding to my students and their difficulty learning online,” Valera said.

Yet there appear to be some positives.

Some students say the isolation has in and of itself taught them key lessons.

It taught Clementine Birnbaum to “appreciate” and “take advantage” of the “little things” that she took for granted before, such as the time with friends that school provided.

Birnbaum also said she enjoys social life more, if a little more germophobic — and that she’s more careful about other perspectives.

It also made her more conscious of her family’s safety, she said, taking daily precautions like wearing a mask, as the threat of COVID-19 still looms.

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