OPB tracks kids on graduation quest
They started the project as kindergarten students, and now they are eighth-graders living in the age of COVID-19, government restrictions and social distancing, and it's all documented in Oregon Public Broadcasting's ambitious, long-term project titled "Class of 2025."
It makes for a pretty interesting story, following kids over years as they work toward high school graduation. And, clearly 2020, with the pandemic, social unrest and everything else, could be the most intriguing part of the entire journey.
"It's such a formative set of events in their lives," said Rob Manning, OPB's news editor and founder of the "Class of 2025" project back in 2012.
"It's not only been a weird time of six months or a year spent doing school from your bedroom, but it's going to be an imprint on their lives."
Through online stories, videos and radio reports, OPB has documented the story of the "Class of 2025" students, from their days at Earl Boyles Elementary School to Ron Russell Middle School in the David Douglas School District. Dozens of families initially were contacted about participating in the project, and 30 originally signed on.
Today, Manning and education reporter Elizabeth Miller track 27 students, about two-thirds of them attending Ron Russell and the others attending school elsewhere in Portland or Southwest Washington.
Manning jokes that he conducted interviews of and reported on students in their preteen years, before handing off to Miller in early 2019 — as the students entered the teenage realm. For both of them, it has been a rewarding experience. Not every media entity can take on a project that will entail 13 years of reporting, writing, recording and videography by the story's conclusion.
While producing stories throughout the 13 years, OPB wants to eventually make a video documentary of the project. For now, OPB has put out its second series of podcasts. It's a six-part effort looking at topics such as: The Class Of 2025 and COVID-19; When school and home collide — COVID 19 continued; The year that screen time was all the time; Lessons from the plague — new teachers in 2020; Boys "fall apart" in middle school; Rayshawn.
Episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, the NPR One app and at opb.org. Three episodes have been launched; others will be released on ensuing Mondays.
The project started after then-Gov. John Kitzhaber pronounced the goal of a 100% graduation rate for all students in Oregon. Manning convinced his managing editor at the time to find a group of students to follow throughout their school years as they work to meet the 100% graduation goal.
(Manning laughs about it now, but wasn't working on a 13-year project kind of a guarantee of employment for 13 years? "Can't downsize Rob," he joked).
Earl Boyles Middle School and Principal Ericka Guynes were willing to be part of the project, and Manning and others contacted 81 families, of which about 30 diverse kids and their parents agreed to be included.
Three kids have since either moved out of state or dropped out of the project.
Routinely talking with students, interviewing them and reporting helps keep Manning and Miller close to their subjects.
"You get to build more of a relationship with them, rather than quoting them in one story," Miller said. "They're used to me. It's about having deeper conversations with them, instead of meeting them once."
Teenagers, she added, "still like talking with me," but some have become shy about being on camera and "some maybe are not as eager to talk with me anymore, and that's OK. Some are really eager, and really reflective."
From 2012 to 2019, it was typical growth stories of the kids, but 2020 brought more angles — many more.
Boredom has been a recurring theme of reporting on the kids, Miller said, stemming from social distancing, government restrictions and doing schoolwork from home.
"By and large, they're going through a difficult time, like we all are," Manning said. "Those who are kind of extroverted or have a strong need for interaction with friends are having a harder time than the introverts.
"Social media is a big thing and it's a double-edged sword," meaning it allows students to stay in touch with others, while cyber bullying and the trappings of instant gratification — such as with likes — can be harmful.
Manning said the reporting has been authentic, in that families and students have been approached about sensitive topics. One of the families was homeless for a while, living in a domestic violence shelter. Another kid had to be taken from parents and now lives with grandparents.
How well are students doing in school, given the 100% graduation goal?
Not great, Manning said, because of COVID-19 and missing classrooms and one-on-one interaction with teachers. But some have done fine.
Added Miller: "We're not going to quit on any of those kids; 'Oh, they're not going to make it.' High school will be a real test. Middle school was a test. We'll see. I have faith in them."
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