Video studios, becoming commonplace in schools, provide students many opportunities

As "You Make Me Feel..." by Cobra Starship blasted through the Lansdowne High School speakers near the end of first period, students in Brandon Nicklas's televideo production class were starting to hustle.

They had a show to produce.

Since Nicklas joined the school in 2005, students have presented the morning announcements at the end of first period from Lansdowne's television studio.

As the day's script was loaded into the teleprompter and students took their positions in the studio, the teacher was advising anchor Stacey Carver, a 16-year-old junior, on the pronunciation of "Theodosius" and "Geórgios" for a "This Day in History" segment.

The students delivered the announcements for about five minutes, presenting reminders for events and deadlines, such as scholarship applications and prom tickets, as well as school sports scores, a SAT word of the day — qualified — and a college of the day — Frostburg State University.

The announcements are streamed through the school. Teachers can project them in their classrooms and students are able to view them on their school-issued laptop computers.

For Nicklas, his students get hands-on video production experience. Students also use the studio to produce video assignments for classes, as well as "The Lansdowne Show," a monthly variety program that is shown on BCPS-TV, the school system's cable channel, and uploaded to YouTube.

"I think it's an incredible outlet for students to express themselves and to be the voice of their own school," he said.

The use of television studio space in county schools is on the rise. They have been part of new school construction and renovation projects for nearly 20 years, said Alex Wolf, a facilitator for the school system's Office of Digital Learning.

About 100 schools in the 161-school system have studios, with about half of them running a digital studio, which allows recording capabilities, Wolf said. In the southwest portion of the county, Lansdowne and Catonsville high schools, Lansdowne and Arbutus middle schools and Westowne, Catonsville, Relay and Hillcrest elementary schools have studios.

Wolf said students learn skills such as teamwork, communication and public speaking by using the studio. Depending on the school, participation is voluntary or tied to a class.

"I think the real world experience students get out of this is something they won't get in a typical classroom," he said. "It can't be replicated on a computer."

While Wolf would like to see digital studios in all county schools , whether that happens will depend on funding. The decision to add a studio to an existing school — and spend money from a school's operating budget on it — is up to the school, as there is no central funding for studios, Wolf said.

The funding is separate from capital expenses which fund major construction projects such as air conditioning, he said.

"My soonest target would be five or six years out and that's pretty optimistic," he said.

Wolf said the cost for a school that wants to simply live stream announcements is relatively inexpensive — about $400 for an encoder and a camera. Equipment for a full-fledged digital studio, such as the ones at Westowne and Catonsville elementary schools that were part of recently completed construction projects, can cost $15,000 to $18,000.

Critics in the past said many staff advisers were not getting paid for the added responsibility, Wolf said. That changed this year, when broadcast production facilitator was added to a school system list of union-negotiated, extra-duty activities. In the past, principals had to request an exception to request funding. The compensation for the role is either $2,005 or $3,004, depending on the scope of the staff member's responsibilities.

There have also been mixed results in having everyone watch live broadcasts, due to inadequate classroom projectors or speakers, Wolf said. He hopes that will be rectified in a future budget.

Sheila Wells, development and communications director at Wide Angle Youth Media, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that focuses on media education, said studying media technology can lead to growth in a number of skills, including teamwork, creativity, interpreting information, listening and public speaking.

"They're sort of the core things that extend far beyond just a career track in media," she said. "It's a really great catalyst for critical thinking in young people."

Jason Loviglio, chair of media and communications studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said while skills such as operating video cameras, working with digital editing software and understanding the basics of lighting, sound and blocking were important for television production in the 20th century, they have become more critical as video becomes more prominent on the internet.

"The expectation is almost any organization that has a web page will have video on it," he said. "The need for people to produce professional quality video for small organizations is increasing rather than decreasing."

Hillcrest Elementary School debuted its studio last month. Operated by school librarian Jacqueline Schoen, the studio is in an area that used to be library storage space.

Schoen started the studio at Woodholme Elementary School 11 years ago and said it gives students who are artistically or technologically inclined an outlet for expression.

Under Schoen's direction, students are responsible for every component of the broadcast, such as monitoring video and sound boards, operating the camera and on-screen talent.

A goal for next year is to acquire a second camera so the students behind the scenes can switch cameras and not have to pan when they want to broadcast from another part of the room, she said.

"Education has totally changed," she said. "The way that kids learn now, it's a lot more integration of video and the visual."

She said the students are able to use the studio for beyond the announcements, such as for class projects. Wolf said that's part of the intention for the spaces.

"We want this to be more than a morning show live-stream type thing," he said. "We want to make this an instructional tool for teachers and students."

Arbutus Middle School principal Michelle Feeney had wanted to have a studio in her school since she started there in 2010. When the school system had extra equipment to provide, she pounced.

She enlisted school secretary Matthew Moser to run the studio from an unused office. Moser, who is in his fourth year at the school, had been doing the announcements over the intercom.

Moser garnered interest for the student production of the announcements by starting an after-school club at the beginning of the school year. Six students joined and spent the first months learning how to put together a broadcast. In the future, the hope is to use the equipment in the field to record sports games and events, he said.

The students did their first broadcast in January. Moser and eighth-grader Fletcher Thomas sit at an anchor table, while students operate the camera, teleprompter, video board and sound board under the watchful eye of a student director.

"It's just a whole row of people doing completely different jobs, but they all have to work together, with the director's help," Fletcher said. "Sometimes when one person isn't there you can really tell the difference with the quality."

Tapasya Ray, an eighth-grader who serves as the director of the newscasts, said being involved in the video announcements makes her feel like a part of the school. She said students are starting to pay attention, now.

"Nobody was listening to the announcements," she said. "We'll get there, but at least they're watching us."

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