Richwoods High principal, media adviser honored by IJEA
By CHRISTOPHER HEIMERMAN
For Illinois Press Association
PEORIA – All the news that’s fit to print. It’s a decision-making process not unlike the game of Othello: A minute to learn and a lifetime to master.
Richwoods High School Principal Brett Elliott, still a relative newbie to the journalism world, is somehow making it look easy. Just ask his students, the person who oversees the school’s student media, and the Illinois Journalism Education Association.
The IJEA recently named Elliott its 2019 Administrator of the Year.
“Brett gives us the freedom to take calculated risks, to try new things and not be afraid to fail,” said Dan Kerns, who in addition to teaching at the high school is adviser of the student paper, The Shield, and the yearbook, Excalibur, as well as the Richwoods Broadcasting Society.
Kerns was recently inducted into IJEA’s Hall of Fame, and Lila Mura leapt at the chance to explain why. A senior, Mura took on the role of editor-in-chief for The Shield and quickly learned how overwhelming it is to find stories and then plan and design an entire paper.
“[Kerns] taught me that you can push past challenges,” she said. “He’s always been very flexible and supportive. Journalism is very hard, especially if you’re organizing an entire paper.”
A lot of tough decisions go into planning each edition, and Kerns and Elliott have had countless closed-door discussions over what to print and what not to.
“I’ve never told him not to do something, but we’ve been able to have conversations and keep perspective,” Elliott said.
For instance, he said The Shield did not – and will not – follow up on a story about a teacher who had inappropriate relations with a student.
“The local media covered it well, and an article from The Shield would have done more harm to that young lady, compared to what they were hoping to accomplish,” Elliott said. “Since I’ve been here, when Dan knows they’re touching on a sensitive topic that could blow up, he not only talks with his students, but he also comes and gets my opinion. We take it one story at a time – always looking at what’s best for the school, while giving the students their First Amendment rights.”
That goes for the Opinions page, too. Students regularly write editorials.
“I don’t always agree with it,” Kerns conceded, “but I try to help them write the best they can.”
Opinion isn’t a one-way street – something his students have learned when they use Elliott as a source.
“He trusts them to do the right thing, and he always makes himself available for interviews, and the broadcasts,” Kerns said. “He’s going to give them his views, even though they might not always be what they’re looking for.”
Elliott, 47, was born and raised in Peoria, and has completed his third year at Richwoods after being principal at Peoria High School for five years.
He said he’s proud that student media not only provides coverage, but also an inclusive, encouraging environment.
“It’s a philosophy where we want to make sure every kid feels valued,” he said. “That’s always there for athletes and popular kids, but other groups might not feel valued or validated. When you see the culture we’ve created here, and to see the kids emulating that in their writing, it’s great to see them celebrating diversity and inclusion. Our message is it doesn’t matter your race, color or sexual diversity, you’re welcome here at Richwoods.”
“The best part is that Mr. Elliott is very humble about the way he interacts with the student media,” Mura said. “He lets us do our own things. That helps us have our own voice and tell stories we want to tell.”
Kerns, 56, also lives in Peoria and has taught at Richwoods for 23 years, after teaching at Bradley University for four years. In his time at Richwoods, he’s seen his students scoop the local media and advance such hotly debated topics as policy on class rank.
The last Shield of the 2018-19 school year was recently printed, and Mura marvels at how far she’s come in her three years under Kerns’ direction.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t like to bother other people with my problems or ask for help,” Mura said. “This year, he helped me learn to speak up, use other people’s talents, and time management has been very important, too.
Over time, the paper has improved because of it.”
She said one of the pieces she’s most proud of is one on renovations at the school, and where the money comes from – something most students should care about, but might not think about if not for student media.
“We’re able to write stories from a student’s perspective, which local media doesn’t really do,” she said. “And then for Principal Elliott to receive his award, it shows across the state, our newspaper can have an impact.”