When a fire broke out at Alice Deal Junior High School a few weeks ago, the first reporters on the scene were two 14-year-olds who, lacking notebooks and other tools of the trade, resorted to a time-honored teen-age technique: They took notes on the palms of their hands.
The two young scribes with the "anything for a story" philosophy were David Bernard and James McCarthy, editorial board members of the school newspaper, "The Real Deal." Local radio and television stations were out with their stories first, but Bernard and McCarthy promise an incisive report on the fire when their next edition comes out this month.
They take their journalism seriously at Deal, located at Fort Drive and Nebraska Avenue NW, and the student newspaper reflects this attitude. Last year's editions of the professional-looking tabloid with hard-hitting stories on topics like teen-age sex and drugs recently won a top rating in a national competition sponsored by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association in New York.
"The Real Deal" is one of a handful of junior high school newspapers in the city and Deal is one of the few junior highs to offer an elective course in journalism. The decision to provide the course at each school boils down to whether there is an instructor who can teach the subject, according to Judith Smith, Deal's journalism teacher and newspaper adviser.
Although Smith's 20 journalism students contribute articles to the newspaper, now in its second year, most of the work is done after school by students who squeeze editing, layout and trips to the printer in between choir practice and homework.
The newspaper is published six times a year. Offset printing for each eight-page edition costs $345. Because the school system provides no financial support, the students rely on advertising sales, subscriptions, donations from the Home and School Association and even car wash revenues to stay afloat, Smith said.
While "The Real Deal" offers typical junior high school fare, such as talent show reviews and volleyball scores, it also tackles ticklish topics.
The attention-grabber in the latest issue was the "Sex Article," as the front-page teaser billed it. An entire page was devoted to student opinions on teen-age sex, statistics on venereal disease and a survey of sex education.
Last May the students put out a two-page spread on "Drugs and Dealers." The stories included an interview with a student who smokes five joints a day, a piece on a drug dealer and a survey that showed nearly a third of Deal students have tried marijuana.
"They wanted to do a drug deal and take photographs from across the street," Smith said. "But I prevailed upon them not to do it because we all might get into trouble."
So far the student journalists have not run into censorship problems. Smith steers them away from certain troublesome topics, such as singling out a teacher for criticism. And although Principal Reginald Moss reads each copy before it is printed, Smith said, "If he tells me to cut an article that the kids and I think should be in, I'll call it quits as adviser."
Moss, who said he "couldn't be prouder" of the newspaper, added that he appreciates the student coverage of controversial subjects. With the sex and drugs series, he said, "They give parents some statistics that they probably didn't have any idea about. They bring out facts that need to be brought out."
The young editors are a savvy group, many of them picking up their journalistic talents from their parents, who include a Washington bureau chief, a radio host and several local newspaper editors.
At their weekly meetings, editorial board members discuss story ideas, confer on the front-page layout and, as painful as it is, do some tough editing on their friends' copy.
"This story is just fact, fact, fact, fact, fact," moaned Pia Ward Ellsbury, the assistant features editor, as she went over a story one afternoon. "It sounds like it's out of the World Book."
Just as officials at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association were impressed with "The Real Deal"--they awarded the paper 974 points out of a possible 1,000--the students are proud of the product too.
"I think it's incredible that we do something like this," said Josh Merrow, an eighth grader. "When it first came out last year we were shocked. We didn't believe it would look like a real newspaper."
As for their forays into touchy topics, ordinarily off-limits to junior high school journalists, news editor Parke Wilde said, "We don't want to be ordinary." Added Pia Ward Ellsbury: "We are a junior high. We're not little tiny kids."