Pittsburg High School student journalists in the spotlight
Just hours before publishing their story last week, four co-editors and two reporters on the Pittsburg High School newspaper, sitting at home in their bedrooms, powered on their laptops and engaged in a Google group chat to check every last fact.
The six student were about to shed light on the questionable education credentials of their newly hired principal.
They didn’t know it then, but by Wednesday the story would bring them global media attention — from The Washington Post, The New York Times, “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show,” the BBC, The Telegraph of London and the Boston Globe Spotlight investigative team, to name a few.
The school paper — The Booster Redux — with their story spread across the front page and tucked inside The Morning Sun, Pittsburg’s local paper, hit driveways in the southeast Kansas town of about 20,400 early last Friday.
On Tuesday, The Kansas City Star was the first to post a story about the six students’ investigation. Their story questioned the legitimacy of the private college — Corllins University — where Amy Robertson, who’d been hired March 6 to lead Pittsburg High School, got her master’s and doctorate degrees years ago.
The students’ story reported that the U.S. Department of Education could not find evidence of Corllins in operation, and they found several articles referring to Corllins as a diploma mill — where people can buy a degree, diploma or certificates. The Corllins website didn’t even work.
Tuesday evening in a meeting room packed with faculty, students and community members, school board president Al Mendez announced that Robertson had resigned from the $93,000-a-year job.
When The Star updated its story to report the resignation, it immediately began attracting thousands of readers and scores of tweets and retweets.
On Wednesday, Destry Brown, the Pittsburg schools superintendent, said the district was reposting the job and from now on will be doing a background check and vetting credentials before any candidate is hired.
Brown said the district had been following a process. “That’s why the questions eventually came up,” he said.
Brown said the district had no way of knowing whether Corllins University was accredited during the time Robertson attended.
But he admitted that school officials had not vetted her. He said the district would rely on the Kansas Department of Education to vet her credentials before issuing her a license to teach in the state.
But state education officials said they had not received any information on Robertson, so no review process was ever started.
Pittsburg High School junior Gina Mathew, one of the co-editors on the reporting team, said Wednesday that the students’ work “speaks volumes about the power of student journalism.
“At the end of the day, we were just doing our job. We knew there was a story that had to be told, and we were going to be the ones to tell it.”
The students said they were shocked by the impact the story had in the community and even more stunned to get streams of electronic letters of congratulations and kudos from professional journalists around the country.
The six spent all of Wednesday in the journalism classroom answering hundreds of emails and doing news, radio and television interviews that they expected to extend into Thursday afternoon.
“This is not something that we are used to,” said Kali Poenitske, a junior and Booster co-editor.
“We are all very humbled by all the respect we are getting from the national media,” Connor Balthazor chimed in. “Most kids our age never get that kind of attention from the national media.”
What the students had hoped for, Mathew said, “was for the school board to re-examine Amy Robertson. They did that, and the rest is just extra.”
Robertson, who has been living off and on in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for the past 19 years, is the CEO of an education consulting firm that starts and runs private, for-profit, K-12 English-language schools in Dubai.
The student journalists’ effort began as a routine article to introduce her to the school and the community.
When co-editor Maddie Baden Googled Robertson’s name, several 2012 articles popped up about Dubai’s education authority suspending the license for Dubai American Scientific School, which was run by Robertson.
The articles accused Robertson of not being authorized to serve as principal of that school. The school received an “unsatisfactory” rating on Dubai education authority inspection reports every year from 2008 to 2012 and was closed in September 2013.
“That raised a red flag,” Baden said. “That started us doing more research.”
Students later found that Robertson had received her two top degrees from Corllins University, which didn’t appear to be accredited by a recognized accreditation agency. Robertson received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa.
Contacted by email Friday, Robertson told The Star that the current status of Corllins University was not relevant “because when I received my MA in 1994 and my Ph.D in 2010, there was no issue.”
She declined to comment on the students’ questions, saying, “I have no comment in response to the questions posed by PHS students regarding my credentials because their concerns are not based on facts.”
Robertson, after application reviews and interviews with administrators, faculty and students, had “emerged as the best fit” for the job, Superintendent Brown said.
He said he had supported the hire, knowing Robertson, who he said has a teaching degree from the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England.
To receive her Kansas license, Brown said, Robertson would have had to take classes at Pittsburg State University, pass a test and acquire her license before she could officially hold the principal post. But that isn’t uncommon for someone hired from outside the state, Brown said.
Brown had spoken with Robertson and felt good about the hire because “I felt like she is very knowledgeable about what is going on in education today in college and career readiness, she is very familiar with Common Core, she knows about how a building works and about maintaining a safe environment.”
He even encouraged the students to question her.
“I don’t want our students to just take the word of an adult because it comes from an adult. I want them to ask questions,” Brown said. “I’m proud of our kids. We have a good journalism department.”
But he said he had no idea the students would dig so deep.
“The kids had never gone through someone like this before.”
With so much talk these days about truth in the media, journalism teacher Emily Smith and Andra Stefanoni, a freelance journalist who stepped in to help Smith, wanted students to follow every path their research took them.
“These are great kids,” Smith said. “Like any other teenagers, they are all involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, sports and jobs and grades; they are busy. And they are really respectful. From good homes, and not used to questioning adult authority.”
Mathew hadn’t even told her parents about the work she and her fellow journalists were doing.
“It wasn’t until they had done all their research that she let us know they were doing something big,” said Boban Mathew, Gina Mathew’s father. “We warned her to be careful because they were questioning the administration, the school board, and they had to tread carefully. They did.”
While parents said they were proud of the students, some also said they were disappointed in school officials.
“I trusted the school district to vet the individual who would be leading our students, and it seems they did not do that,” said Erin Balthazor, Connor Balthazor’s mother.
The morning their story was to appear, the six students said they were filled with anxiety.
“It was stressful. We were a little nervous even though we knew all the facts were straight,” Baden said.
Patrick Sullivan, a junior and one of the reporters, said family members from Kansas City were the first to contact and congratulate him.
“In my first class, my teacher talked to me for 10 minutes about the story.”
Connor Balthazor said he was proud of the work they had all done.
“We worked incredibly hard,” he said. “And for us to know that the school board and the community saw that something needed to be done and then they did it, shows us a huge amount of respect.”
“Now we are just trying to process it all,” said Trina Paul, a co-editor. “All the phones ringing, all the tweets, the interviews.”
For Baden, “this will always be something we can take with us for the rest of our lives, that we wrote this story and changed something in our school. We changed something, and we will always be remembered for that.”