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Sycamore schools up their game with student-produced broadcasts

Replay, scoreboards added; local access broadcasts expected to start soon

SYCAMORE – Devyen Thompson picked an appropriate word: eye-opening.

The 15-year-old Sycamore High School sophomore was on the sideline Aug. 25 shooting the football team’s season opener against Sterling. His video camera’s feed was instantly beamed to the new 25-by-13-foot high-definition video board behind the north end zone – complete with instant replays.

Those live shots and replays were streamed worldwide on SpartanTV.

“It was pretty eye-opening, seeing how we could all work as a team and show everyone what’s happening – showing them what they couldn’t see but we could see,” Thompson said.

The clubs give students a chance to try their hand at virtually every role in producing a broadcast and help them figure out their career path – pretty eye-opening stuff for teenagers.

Opening credits

SpartanTV began in 2010 as a fully grant- and donation-funded sports streaming club. In 2014, Spartan News was added, and its crew produces a weekly newscast that will soon be on local access cable. Principal Tim Carlson said he hears from alumni as far away as Japan, asking whether the football game will be streamed Friday night.

Fans of freshman football who feel jilted by lack of coverage had to be delighted that SpartanTV streamed its first frosh game Friday, when the Spartans traveled to Grayslake North High School.

Last year, thanks to grants from multiple local foundations, the club got a broadcast trailer, allowing it to take – well, capture and broadcast, really – the show on the road.

This will be a banner year for the clubs, which received that digital scoreboard – and two more in the gymnasium – from the Sycamore Sports Boosters. The club also bought replay capability.

“Once [the students] got into it, they were putting pretty much every replay up on the board, and by the end of the game, they had a three-minute highlight package to play,” said Ralph Helm, the school’s multimedia guru who runs the clubs along with fellow SHS alumnus David Olson. “We’ve got some very powerful tools, and the kids are going crazy with them.”

“High schools don’t have replay, but we do,” Olson said.

Stepping it up

Carlson called SpartanTV Olson’s baby, and it’s gone from baby steps to an upcoming leap to public access broadcasting. In February, the Sycamore City Council unanimously approved an agreement with District 427 allowing it to use Comcast Channel 14 for the student-produced news coverage.

One big step already has happened for little journalists, through Spartan Jr., which launched last year and is housed at Southeast Elementary School. Kids go out and get their own content, and teachers help them edit it.

The middle school also has a program, although it doesn’t have an official name yet, Olson said.

Just like that, a pipeline of talent was created.

“We’re working to bridge the gap between the three, so we always have kids coming through the ranks,” Olson said. “They’re taught basic skills there, so that here, we’re mastering skills.”

A next giant leap will be forming curriculums to turns the clubs into for-credit classes, which could happen as soon as next fall, Carlson said.

Olson said that despite the clubs’ growth, they haven’t cost the district a dime – it’s all made possible by donations and grants.

Building resumés

Myriad skills go into producing the clubs’ content – from being on camera to shooting video to directing where it goes and when as a producer.

“We want you to try different things,” Olson said. “Kids love being in front of the camera, but we want you to direct, to report on a package. You’re not going to work the same job 40 years. You might have to learn to adapt.”

Sam Hancock, a 17-year-old senior, worked in several roles for Spartan News last year. He plans to study biomedical engineering in college, but he doesn’t want to miss a chance to anchor the news while in high school.

“It’s fun to be the face of the school,” he said. “For other students to see you reading off the news, they think, ‘Man, this guy’s cool.’ ”

Junior Allie Vidales, 16, is in her second year with Spartan News. She wants to make movies when she grows up.

“This is a good segue way into that,” she said. “I’m learning a lot, and I’ve heard a lot of people say film school is really expensive now. Say I can just go get my general degree, then go into the workforce and use the skills I’ve learned here in the real world.”

“We don’t want them to go to college [needing remediation], to go and spend a lot of money and find out, ‘That’s not what I want to do,’ ” Carlson said. “They can find out right now if this is a field they want to study, and it gets them a head start on everybody else when they get to college. It’s a competitive world out there, especially in this field.”

There’s a lot of pressure. Good idea to get used to it now, Vidales said.

“It’s nice to be in charge of everyone and make sure you’re putting out a good product,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I like the pressure, to be honest.”

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