Gadsden County student newspaper takes 2nd place in national competition

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What can three teenagers do when armed with reporters’ notebooks? Take home an award in a national journalism competition. 

When 17-year-old Maybelline Samoza heard that her three-person Gadsden County High School newspaper had won second place in the American Scholastic Press Association competition, she said it felt like her heart “dropped for a moment.” 

Photo of the Gadsden County High School newspaper award, 2020. (Photo: Special to the Democrat)

Samoza didn’t know that her English and journalism teacher, John Nogowski, had even entered their student newspaper, the Gadsden County Gazette, into the journalism competition during the teenager’s last year at the school. Nogowski told her to check her email to fact check him. 

“I thought he was just kidding,” she said in a recent interview. “I saw the certificate, and I couldn’t believe it.” 

The Gadsden County High graduate now attends Tallahassee Community College, where she’s working toward an associate’s degree.

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Maybelline Samoza holds a copy of the Gadsden County High School Gazette newspaper which won second place in the American Scholastic Press Association’s annual yearbook, magazine and newspaper contest. (Photo: Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat)

She is one of three main writers for the student newspaper; the other two are students Aracely Saracay and Isaac Shaw. 

“When I was little, I would always conduct little interviews with my family,” Samoza said. “I always liked investigating things.”

As an 8-year-old, she’d sit in front of the TV to hear the news, but didn’t realize it could be an actual profession. 

In high school, she signed up for a journalism course taught by Nogowski and her life changed in a lede. 

“His way of teaching is just so different,” she said. “He doesn’t want to just teach the system and what we’re going to be tested on. He wants to teach us life — things that we will actually treasure in 10 to 20 years from now.” 

For 19-year-old Saracay, the award came as a surprise. “The power that three students have to write an amazing paper like that, it’s surprising,” she said in a recent phone interview. 

Saracay, a Gadsden County native, added that after taking Nogowski’s course, “I’ve grown to be a great writer.” 

Nogowski, who has taught at the Gadsden school for roughly 14 years, said he had heard about the association’s competition and decided to apply on a whim. 

But the school’s budget was too tight for the $70 entry fee, so Nogowski went home and talked to his wife, Liz, who offered to pay the fee. 

“Then lo and behold, I’m teaching from home and I didn’t even know (the award) was in my mailbox at school for a week or two,” he said in a recent interview.

Serious competition

The Gadsden high school newspaper placed 2nd out of 30 schools entered in its category out of almost 200 entries, according to the American Scholastic Press Association. 

“The Gadsden County Gazette was reviewed in several areas such as format, content, and overall presentation compared to other entries in the same category,” the association wrote in an email to the Tallahassee Democrat.

“The Faculty Adviser, John Nogowski, and the staff of this excellent newspaper are to be commended for their tireless efforts.”

Gadsden County High School teacher John Nogowski. (Photo: Special to the Democrat)

Nogowski said the newspaper has established itself at the school as a publication that doesn’t “pull any punches” but works to be fair — tenets of traditional journalism. 

The publication covers a host of topics, including opinion pieces headlined: “Never thought I’d say it: I miss school” and “Should we still listen?” about national officials arguing about COVID-19.

The paper also covered the school’s transition to remote learning as the virus shuttered classrooms, along with some of the issues that naturally arose. 

Nogowski said the school has welcomed the publication’s questions and explainer-journalism style, even in the midst of a global crisis. 

“It’s very fitting that they would do something like this because they are awesome journalists and we are absolutely proud of each and every one of them,” Gadsden High School Principal Pamela Jones said of the award. 

Jones added the newspaper has only been running for a couple of years and has helped the students who work directly on the publication find purpose. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Florida classrooms in March, Jones added that the newspaper navigated the strange and stressful transition well and retained its credibility. 

“For me, it’s the hands-on, real-life, real-world experiences to make them better people when they leave high school,” she said. 

The newspaper prints roughly two times a year, in the fall and spring semesters and has a section written in Spanish called the Latin Quarter; roughly 20% of the 960 students are Hispanic.

Nogowski estimated it cost the school $500 to print the paper each time in Bainbridge, Georgia, though the student publication has now moved online as well. 

He said he hopes the award helps inspire his former, current and future students to challenge themselves, no matter their background. 

“I hope it means: ‘Hey, you can compete with anybody,’ ” he said.

CD Davidson-Hiers is an education reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat. Contact her at 850-631-0958, or [email protected] Twitter: @DavidsonHiers. 

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