The Washington Post’s Young Journalists Development Program held its first awards ceremony last week at the Post’s 15th Street NW headquarters. Hosted by Michelle Singletary, a financial columnist for the paper, the ceremony honored two high school journalism students and two teachers who organizers said have exhibited excellence in journalism and media education.

Financial columnist Michelle Singletary hosted The Washington Post's Young Journalists Development Program awards ceremony. (Jeffrey Martin/For The Washington Post)

“We provide skills training and make sure that the students who are in the high schools now that are interested in being professional journalists can get the tools they need to be successful when they get out,” said Jaye Linnen, the program’s coordinator.

The evening’s keynote speaker was Post opinion writer and MSNBC contributor Jonathan Capehart. His message was clear: Student journalists need to have the confidence to go after their dreams, and it is up to their adult mentors to help them along the way.

“The best thing you can do for a young person is to ask them flat out ‘What is your dream?’” Capehart said. He went on to say it is important for student journalists to nurture their dreams because without them “the work done in this building might not continue.”

Lauren McCracken, senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and Managing Editor of the school’s student newspaper, Theology, won the Young Journalist Leadership Award.

McCracken, who plans to major in journalism at Northwestern University in the fall, said her high school journalism experience helped develop her love of feature writing. Her favorite piece from her portfolio is called “A for Adderall,” in reference to the drug used by students who believe it enhances their performance.

“It was about academic doping and all of the different sides of it,” she said. “Obviously it’s illegal and dangerous, but at the same time, some people say kids need every competitive edge that they can get. So, that story was really cool.”

The second student journalist honored at the awards ceremony was Carolyn Conte. A sophomore at Bishop McNamara High School in Prince George’s County, Conte applied for and won the Emerging Young Journalist Award. Along with McCracken, she received a chance to be mentored by Post reporters and members of the editorial board, a framed certificates and a personalized trophy.

“I’ve always loved writing,” Conte said.

She has been working for her school’s paper, the Stampede, since her freshman year. This year she serves as the opinion editor and next year she will be the paper’s copy chief.

The program not only honored budding student journalists, but also acknowledged two D.C. area journalism teachers.

Lake Braddock Secondary School’s Kathryn Helmke took home the Inspire Award, given to a journalism adviser with less than five years experience who has helped develop their school’s journalism program and is a positive influence on both the students and other journalism advisers. Helmke was nominated by her friend and colleague, Lauren Luna, who teaches journalism at Oakton High School.

Helmke teaches newspaper, yearbook, television and Introduction to Journalism at Lake Braddock, in Fairfax.

“I love journalism, but what I really love about teaching publications is the responsibility it teaches them. They need to push the other students, they need to be the leaders, and ultimately, if the publication fails or succeeds, it’s up to them. It’s wonderful to see them take that responsibility,” Helmke said.

The winner of the Mentoring Excellence Award was Suzanne Gill. Although she began her teaching career 46 years ago as a social-studies teacher, Gill has been a journalism adviser at Stafford Senior High School in Falmouth for 12 years.

Since becoming Stafford High’s journalism adviser, Gill has expanded the program from two classes of 25 each to six classes of 25 each.

“Writing is important, but more than that, journalism and paying attention to what’s going on is the ability to tell the difference between a fact and an opinion, and to pay attention to what people are saying and doing. Because that’s the only thing that keeps a democracy a democracy,” Gill said.

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