Gina Mathew (from left), Kali Poenitske, Maddie Baden, Trina Paul,
Connor Balthazor and Patrick Sullivan at Pittsburg High School in
Pittsburg, Kan. When reporters for the student newspaper there dug into
the credentials offered by their new principal, they found issues that
led to her resignation. Courtesy of Emily Smith/Pittsburg High School
Newspaper's Fact Check Results In New Principal's Resignation
April 5, 2017
In Kansas, a student newspaper is being praised for its hard work in
reporting that Pittsburg High School's newly hired principal had
seemingly overstated her credentials. The principal, Amy Robertson, has
now resigned, after the paper found she claimed advanced degrees from
Corllins University, an entity whose legitimacy has been questioned.
"In light of the issues that arose, Dr. Robertson felt it was in the
best interest of the district to resign her position," the school board
said Tuesday, adding that it will now begin looking for a new principal.
The turnabout came just weeks after Robertson was hired. Until
Pittsburg High's newspaper, The Booster Redux, published its findings
last Friday, the main impediments to Robertson starting full time on
July 1 had been her impending move from Dubai and the need to acquire a
Kansas school administrator's license.
"She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted be assured
that she was qualified and had the proper credentials," said editor
Trina Paul, a senior at Pittsburg High, according to The Kansas City
Star. "We stumbled on some things that most might not consider
Praise for the newspaper's staff has been rolling in from beyond its
hometown in southeast Kansas, as news of the students' careful and
diligent work spread.
"Loving all the support of the kids by professionals," their adviser,
Emily Smith, said in a tweet. She noted that after Topeka
Capitol-Journal reporter Justin Wingerter tweeted about the paper, he
was retweeted by Todd Wallack, a member of The Boston Globe's Spotlight
The high school newspaper was preparing a feature article about the new
principal when reporters found the irregularities. They brought their
concerns to the school district and were encouraged to contact
Robertson directly — so that's what they did, in a conference call that
included Smith and the head of the school board.
"During the call, Robertson presented incomplete answers, conflicting
dates and inconsistencies in her responses," the newspaper reports.
"The extensive amount of research that we had done really didn't line
up with what she said was true on her end," Gina Mathew, a junior at
Pittsburg High, tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. Mathew was one of the six
reporters who led the paper's investigation.
As they did more research, Mathew tells Kelly on Wednesday's All Things
Considered, she and other reporters realized that "those
inconsistencies were what needed to be presented within our own
newspaper, and to highlight to the community what we had found."
Mathew says that while some in the community tried to dismiss the
students' concerns, "We knew that there was a story to be heard here,
and that's exactly what our paper sought out to do."
By conducting interviews and collecting details from online databases,
the newspaper's staff tracked down a complicated story with many moving
parts, from an online university with seemingly no fixed U.S. address
to Robertson's travels between Spain, New York and what she described
as a Corllins campus in Stockton, Calif.
More fact-finding revealed doubts over Corllins' accreditation and
whether the school had a business license in Stockton's San Joaquin
As the staff of the Booster Redux worked through those details, doubts
about Robertson's qualifications were also raised in the local
newspaper, The Morning Sun, in the form of an anonymous letter to the
editor signed by "Pittsburg Citizen X."
The student newspaper published the results of its investigation last
Friday; one day earlier, the Pittsburg Community Schools' Board of
Education had released a statement titled "Dr. Robertson Brings Decades
of Experience to PHS," which seemed to be a response to questions about
its new hire.
"Robertson comes to Pittsburg with decades of experience in education,
which include international exposure as a teacher and administrator,"
the board said.
The statement also noted that high school staff and students had agreed
Robertson was the top candidate for the job — a sentiment that, as The
Booster Redux reported on Friday, was echoed by history and social
studies teacher Marjorie Griffin, who was on the board's search
"I thought she interviewed very well," Griffin told the paper. "I
thought she had all the answers."
But, Griffin told the Booster Redux, she became more uneasy as the
issue of accreditation and other questions arose.
We wanted to hear from Emily Smith, the journalism teacher and adviser
behind the story, so we gave her a call. Here's an edited snippet of
What has the response been like for your students?
They really were overwhelmed with the support of people near and far.
The community has been great, our school has been great. There were a
few people that were saying it’s not our business -- because there’s
always the concern of casting a negative light on the school -- but I
feel like we’ve done the exact opposite. We have shown how talented and
determined and intelligent and inquisitive and professional our kids
are. And I think people should be very proud of that.
Fake news is a big topic right now -- do you talk about that in class?
I think everything we do is trying to prevent fake news or anything of
that nature. Throughout this reporting process there were some ups and
downs, and I told the kids, “I know you’re not going to be journalists,
you’ve all been very open about that. But you are going to go be great
members of your communities, you’re going to be informed citizens,
you’re going to be catalysts for change because you’re thoughtful and
you’re inquisitive and you care.”
I think that if more people in our country asked more questions,
demanded real answers, and cared, the world would be a better place
just because of that. There’s nothing wrong with being informed.
Do you think a story like this will help encourage student journalism,
especially in high schools?
I don’t know if we have that much impact or power, but if you look at
what is trending in education right now -- career and college readiness
and Common Core standards -- that’s exactly what we do in here every
They’re doing something that regardless of what field they go into
after high school, if they’re going to be in the medical field, if they
want to be an attorney, an engineer, a movie star -- these kids are
learning how to be accountable, they’re learning that what they do
matters, they’re learning to meet a deadline, they’re learning to work
together, to overcome conflict, how to problem solve. I mean,
everything that you can think of that anybody does on any given day in
their workplace, they are learning it right here.
I think I have awesome kids. But I think there are awesome kids
everywhere, and sometimes they just need somebody to believe in them.
Too many people think, ‘You’re not old enough to know anything or to be
able to do something of the caliber.’ That’s just certainly not the