Driving Dialogue: CRLS Students Find Independent Voice at 128-Year-Old Newspaper

CRLSPhotos by Bryan Steele.

Dozens of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students work together every month to lead their school’s conversations on controversial issues and major community events. This work at the Register Forum newspaper is not heavily edited or shepherded by teachers and administrators, but rather driven by students.

The Register Forum dates back to 1891, when Cambridge Manual Training School—later renamed the Rindge School of Technical Arts—founded a student publication. Since then, the paper’s student editorial staff has consistently covered school events, a legacy that the paper says makes it the nation’s oldest continuously published, student-run, public high school newspaper.

For the students staffing the paper, the organization’s independence is central to its mission. Editors-in-Chief Sun-Jung Yum and Cecilia Barron, both seniors, say students are empowered to make decisions independently and generate coverage ideas of their own.

“Because we don’t have a teacher who is delegating everything, we have a bunch of people who can step up,” Yum says.

In fact, Yum and Barron say the paper occasionally makes coverage decisions that run counter to the school’s requests, but their independence allows them to disagree with school administrators. This arrangement makes the paper more educationally enriching, they add, because it has some of the independence of a professional newsroom and its reporters can cover controversial topics.

The paper’s editors-in-chief say conflicts over content are rare, a stark difference from reports of student press censorship at high schools nationwide. A Massachusetts law protects public high school students’ freedom of expression, including their freedom to publish their views, as long as their expression does not cause “disruption or disorder.”

English teacher Steven Matteo, who has served as the Register Forum’s advisor for nearly 12 years, says the paper’s independence regularly leads to impressive journalism, even if students occasionally make mistakes. The Register Forum also serves as a rare opportunity for students to lead each other, he explains.

Rather than working as a heavy-handed editor, Matteo thinks of himself as the paper’s “goalie,” responsible for ensuring that published work is not a distraction to learning.

“I rarely have to come in and discourage a story from being printed,” Matteo says. “I try to keep myself out of it.”

Yum and Barron are especially proud of the Register Forum’s efforts to cover major issues in Cambridge and at CRLS. In recent years, the paper has published stories about the history of race and segregation in Cambridge, the impact of teacher tenure, the STEM gender gap at CRLS, and standardized testing boycotts.

The paper runs a story about race almost every month, which the editors-in-chief say sparks conversations that might not have taken place otherwise.

“We’re trying to put the biggest school issues forward in a way the school doesn’t,” Barron says. “In a way, we’re projecting issues that we wish the school [administration] cared more about.”

However, the paper’s lack of racial diversity is a challenge that parallels similar issues in professional media, the editors-in-chief note. The Register Forum’s staff has historically not reflected CRLS’s racial composition, a problem Barron and Yum hope to address through wide outreach.

“In a perfect world, our paper would be exactly representative of the school’s racial makeup, which it isn’t now,” Barron says.

The Register Forum also regularly covers local politics, according to Matteo. Shortly after Mayor Marc McGovern was inaugurated last year, the Register Forum published a wide-ranging interview with him. Students interview school board members, superintendents, and other local notables, which Matteo says makes the paper into a “marketplace for democracy.”

“I’m very proud that our journalists tackle the issues that Cambridge wrestles with,” Matteo says. “In many ways, the kids are on the vanguard of several important conversations that administrators and teachers and parents want kids to have.”

The Register Forum fills a unique niche when covering these issues, the editors-in-chief say, because it reflects students’ interests and thoughts in a way that other local news outlets cannot match. 

“Even if we’re covering local or national news, we always try to link it back to the school,” Yum says. “We try to keep focused on the school and the students.”

Amid controversies and political issues, the Register Forum’s other role is to acknowledge and chronicle the school’s day-to-day events. The paper tries to highlight student organizations that are rarely given attention, cover the school’s athletic teams, and write about arts and entertainment, the editors-in-chief note.

“The paper is like the heartbeat of the school,” Matteo says. “It’s a reflection of all the cool things that happen at the school.”

Ambitious journalism by high schoolers can occasionally lead to challenges, Matteo and the editors-in-chief acknowledge. Errors occasionally make it to press even though the paper’s content is usually fairly polished, according to Matteo. Though he tries to treat those mistakes as opportunities to learn, he can overlook occasional setbacks because he says the paper’s work is overwhelmingly strong.

“I want kids to have a really positive, empowering, memorable experience that they can bring with them to whatever they’re going to do,” Matteo says.

The newspaper has reflected school events and aired students’ opinions for more than a century, a legacy now saved in the Cambridge Public Library’s archive. Matteo and the editors-in-chief are mindful of and reverent toward the paper’s long legacy, but its student leaders emphasize that its history is not their sole focus.

In fact, the paper has changed quite a bit in recent years. It now has a strong online presence, which the editors-in-chief say has broadened readership substantially. The staff has also grown rapidly, a development Yum and Barron attribute to a growing nationwide appetite for journalism. Students’ enthusiasm for the Register Forum and for CRLS’s journalism classes is palpable, Matteo says: At the paper’s first meetings of the year, so many students flood his classroom that it is impossible to find a seat.

Barron and Yum first caught this enthusiasm for the Register Forum in their freshman year at CRLS. Even though they aren’t planning on working in journalism professionally, they believe the paper has taught them about writing and leadership. There are few other opportunities for high school students to work independently, leading dozens of peers to cover some of Cambridge’s highest-profile issues.

“The school definitely respects us and what we do,” Barron says, “but I think there are also a lot of things they could learn from the Register Forum.”

This story is an online-exclusive accompaniment to the Voices of the City Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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To read the Register Forum, visit registerforum.org.