From a crowd gathered around what appeared to be a warehouse fire on a Northeast Washington street, someone shouted, "There's the TV people."
The video crew at the scene looked and performed like professionals, although it appeared too young and its equipment bore no station logo. Filming what proved to be a false alarm was a group of students in the television news class of the Lemuel A. Penn Career Center, a 9-year-old institution of the D.C. public schools.
"Radio and TV News" is part of the instruction in journalism, one of five areas in communications that the center offers to District high school students.
The course is designed to let students "learn how to be TV news reporters by doing what reporters do in real life," instructor Brad Stein said. They attend press conferences, cover assignments, produce short news features and eventually produce "longer documentaries, such as you would see on '60 Minutes,' " Stein said. They also study the U.S. and city government and urban studies.
Penn Center also teaches advertising design, photography, printing and TV and radio writing and production.
The radio and TV news course evolved from a literary arts program that the District's schools began in 1969. Stein, who has a master's degree in fine arts from Catholic University, joined the program in 1971, initially teaching a film course with four other teachers out of a house on Vermont Avenue NW.
In 1974, the program merged with others to become the Penn Center, in a renovated warehouse near the Amtrak switching yard at 1709 Third St. NE.
Studying at the center is "like having a job," said Darryl Wilson, a McKinley High School junior.
"It's better to find out before you go to college," Stein said. He said that 80 percent of the students in his program each year go on to college, and that Penn Center students attend "the top journalism schools in the country."
On one recent assignment, five students were required to plan, film and edit a five-minute news documentary on the development and character of a community and its contribution to the city. They chose the Edgewood neighborhood, between Rhode Island and Michigan avenues NE and North Capitol and Seventh streets NE.
En route to the location in McKinley High School student Gerardi Oglesby's car, crew members, squeezed among school bags and video equipment, reviewed their shooting schedule as disco played on the radio. Their conversation alternated between informed, serious planning and high school jiving.
Moving from one site to another, they quickly assumed and exchanged duties as director, interviewer, cameraman and helper. All had been trained for each job. Flexibility and jovial spirits among them seemed to make teamwork easier.
Knocking on doors and answering each other's questions, they constantly attempted to fill the holes in their reporting and correct their mistakes.
"In these next two weeks, they're going to do a lot of walking and falling," said Stein, who did not accompany the group.
Although most students end up excited about news, some said their experience diminished their interest. "It's not me," said junior Cathy Wilson, who said she dislikes the rush and action of news production.
Senior Tresa Welch of Ballou High School decided to major in political science and minor in communications in college, her interest having shifted to politics when she did interviews on Capitol Hill for the class.
Former Stein student Alexis Revis, 25, a producer-writer for WHMM Channel 32 television's nightly public affairs program "Evening Exchange," said the hands-on experience at the center "makes you more mature."
"It's easier to see what you've done wrong when you're actually doing it," said Revis, who attended the Penn Center as a part-time senior at St. Anthony's High School and later graduated from American University. "At one point we had a graduate of this class in every major TV station in Washington," Stein said.
Penn Center's principal, George C. Gordon, said that 60 to 70 percent of Penn graduates are "capable of taking their rightful place" in private industry. "We're keeping with the superintendent's directives, designing programs to address newly emerging occupations," he said.