Nov. 19, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 6:45 PM EET
The final edition of Echoes from the Streets.
If Gabriel Ruiz was going to high school this year, and not five years ago, the following inspirational tale would not be possible.
That’s because Echoes from the Streets youth newspaper, the vehicle for Gabe’s growth, is being put on "hiatus" by Our Piece of the Pie, a Hartford anti-poverty agency, according to former Echoes youth business manager Doug Hardy.
In the efforts of full disclosure, I started Echoes, and Doug is a friend and colleague of more than a decade.
But let’s get back to Gabe, because his story is what Echoes is about.
Gabriel Ruiz, raised by his mother in Hartford’s North End, wrote for Echoes during the summer of 2002.
Gabe was a sophomore at Sports Sciences Academy with dreams of playing football. Naturally, he wanted to write an NFL preview.
He bought a few magazines, and wrote a meticulously researched team-by-team season outlook. I challenged him that he needed an interview, something real, something local, to make the package sparkle.
The New England Patriots took Gabe's calls, and set up a question-and-answer session with New Britain native Tebucky Jones, then the cornerback for the reigning Super Bowl champs.
At 5 a.m. one day in August 2002, I drove him to Smithfield, Rhode Island to the Patriots' training camp. He interviewed Tebucky. Later, during a press conference, head coach Bill Belichick told Gabe not to raise his hand, but to just call out his question like the other reporters.
Gabe's highlight of the day wasn't when a photographer from Maine told him he was shooting the field like a professional. For Gabe, it was standing on the same field, 50 feet away from Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady.
Echoes built its national reputation on outcome measurements. Aside from publishing stories every month, we quizzed students about core competencies before they entered the program and after they left.
We could show that something like 90 percent of students said they read and wrote better and that they felt more confident about themselves after working at Echoes for only three months.
Many students told me they learned more in six hours a week of after-school work than they did during five days of full-time high school.
We never did a longitudinal outcomes study of how the program affected students five years later, but I suspect it might have more than a few responses like this from Gabe Ruiz, which he sent me in November 2006:
"This e-mail is to thank you for your inspiration to me growing up. Those articles I wrote gave me enough confidence to be the first in my family to pursue a higher education. I am 20 years old and currently a junior at Southern Connecticut State University on my way to graduate in spring 2008."
Perhaps in a few years, Jeff Davies, an Echoes writer who interviewed New York Jets’ head coach Eric Mangini for the Spring 2007 issue, will have a similar tale.
So if one interview - one day - can change a student’s life for the better, why end the program that provides such opportunities?
Well, OPP, formerly Southend Community Services, clearly has confidence in its youth, as it "is changing its youth business curriculum to better support youth whose literacy levels are not quite ready for the challenge of putting together a magazine," Hardy reported in his last editor's note from the Summer 2007 edition, the final print copy of Echoes.
After reading that, I thought it is probably positive that OPP is quitting youth publishing, because that sentence shows how little confidence OPP places in its youth, and how little effort OPP will put into teaching literacy. And what of those students like Gabe who do have the skills?
"Echoes has been combined with City Scan, OPP’s youth
advocacy program, to create a hybrid version of the two called Hartford Youth Community Advocates," Hardy wrote.
Hardy held the post of Echoes' editor for almost three years, a good six months longer than I did.
But OPP had Hardy reapply for his job, and he was not interested in pursuing the new position for many reasons, among them OPP meddling in editorial content.
That was always a battle. When I first dreamed of starting a youth paper in 1996, I sought to preserve youth voice. In 2000, when I developed a partnership with Alan MacKenzie of OPP, then a youth business incubator within SCS, Echoes was born with some strings attached.
In Spring 2003, SCS executive director Bob Rath yanked those strings when he fired Alan, myself and others in a massive housecleaning within the OPP incubator. Rath later changed SCS’ name to OPP.
To his credit, Rath kept Echoes going until now. That years of my labor didn’t disappear into nothingness made me proud. Sadly, I can’t say that anymore.
OPP might say it could not justify the per pupil expenditure (maybe $2,500 per student per three month cycle). But building portable prisons, which Rath used to do, costs more than teaching kids literacy skills.
Rath also bears some responsibility for increased costs, because after he canned me, the Hartford Courant withdrew the donation of printing the monthly paper.
OPP might suggest that Echoes was too controversial to continue in its current form. Who could imagine Mayor Eddie Perez smiling that a program the city partly funds but his opponent Raul DeJesus on its cover during the election cycle? But newspapers take heat.
OPP could argue Echoes was not attracting enough students. That it reached thousands of students and that it was so effective for the students it did hire should compensate for any perceived loss in the revenue column.
Yet an obituary should look at the bright side – hundreds of young people in Hartford had a chance to experience journalism because of Echoes. It lasted six years, and I did my best. Doug did his best. But we are both experienced professionals who will always land on our feet.
Without Echoes and MetroBridge, the Courant's high school journalism program killed by bean counters in 2004 (which I worked for in 2003-04), where will aspiring youth reporters in Hartford go to express themselves and be heard?
Since we bear the responsibility as adults to provide young people the opportunities we had, I’ll set the bold goal to build a journalism charter high school in Hartford. It may take a decade, but it will happen.
And hopefully Gabe Ruiz will come to teach at our high school, as I am certain he understands the value of Echoes from the Streets.