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Students 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
Kansas Student Newspaper's Fact Check Results In New Principal's Resignation
Bill Chappell
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 legitimate credentials."

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 team.

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 County.

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 committee.

"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 our conversation.

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 day.

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 case.

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