Philly’s new student-led independent newspaper aims to keep District accountable
Students are constantly asking permission. In May, the launch of The Bullhorn, Philly’s first independent student newspaper, created one space where they don’t need to.
The idea arose last fall as a proposal in a weekly meeting of Masterman High School’s chapter of the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth-centered group that focuses on organizing and leadership. Besides the project’s function as a newspaper, it gained excitement as a potential platform for unifying Philly students in future endeavors. Despite all that the 200,000-plus students in the Philadelphia School District and charters share, most students are limited to the activities and social media circles within their school. Little connection exists among schools, especially between neighborhood schools and magnet schools.
By email and phone, The Bullhorn’s inaugural members reached out to English teachers and principals throughout the city, looking for interested students, often members of school newspapers and arts programs. Today, 15 schools are represented among The Bullhorn’s staff, and the students have organized into four teams: reporting, design, outreach, and editing.
Unsurprisingly, much of what draws in students is The Bullhorn’s independence. The website designers, the social media managers, the artists, the reporters, the press team, the editors – they’re all students. It’s liberating.
“In Philadelphia, there really aren’t many events or organizations that are entirely student-led,” said Makayla Cunningham, a rising junior at Frankford High School and member of The Bullhorn’s design team. “It feels amazing to be a part of.”
Without the looming shadow of any sponsors or management, The Bullhorn and the students that write for it are uncensored in their reflection on the world around them.
“The District isn’t giving us money, so we don’t have to be cautious about what we say about the District, and the PSU isn’t giving us money, so we don’t have to push their agenda,” said Aden Gonzales, a rising senior at Masterman High School and one of the initial and main organizers of The Bullhorn. “We can just say what we feel.”
Students are doing just that. From commentary about online learning and the District to reporting on Philadelphians experiencing homelessness during COVID-19, articles are published frequently. Some are submissions, and others are written by established reporting teams, all showcasing student voices. The site also features a range of poetry and visual art. At The Bullhorn, there are roles for anyone who is interested in joining.
“I want to be a graphic designer,” said Kaitlyn Rodriguez, a rising sophomore and visual arts major at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative & Performing Arts. As a member of The Bullhorn’s communications and design teams, Rodriguez designs and updates the website, responds to submissions and media inquiries, and develops the weekly newsletter for the site’s subscribers.
“I hadn’t done anything like that before,” she confessed. Yet, through video tutorials and collaboration with experienced students, Rodriguez quickly got the hang of the website.
For many students, The Bullhorn is a learning experience. It’s an exercise in collaborating with others and a chance to explore creating and managing a public project and, possibly, a future career.
The greater vision for The Bullhorn continues to include collaboration on student events. Most recently, students, many of whom had never met in person, organized Philly Talents for Peace, a virtual talent showcase in honor of victims of gun violence in Philadelphia. The program featured performances, spoken word, and firsthand accounts from students and alumni, highlighting how gun violence has affected students. Besides raising awareness, the showcase, broadcast live on social media and Channel 52, raised nearly $600 for Moms Bonded By Grief, a local support group.
In the two months since its launch, the students behind The Bullhorn have proven just how driven and impassioned students are – all on their own.
And people are listening. Across social media, The Bullhorn has gained hundreds of followers. In its first month, the website amassed 2,000 visits.
There are no plans of slowing down. The paper is still growing, striving toward representation from every high school in Philadelphia. In the future, students hope to create larger, public discussions about educational inequity in the city through forums and panels.
Of course, the free tools the team has used, such as GroupMe and Airtable, have a limit. Ultimately, independence comes at a price. Right now, The Bullhorn spends just $7 a month – to cover the website domain. Although the team hopes to expand the website into print, it’s extremely expensive. For now, the newspaper remains online as its organizers wait to hear back about a few grant opportunities. Above all, “it’s crucial to keep The Bullhorn free for anyone who wants to read it,” said Gonzales.
Online or in print, The Bullhorn is more than a student newspaper. Gonzales said: “The more united we feel with each other, the more that we see ourselves in one another, the more we’re going to be able to deal with these problems.”
We need unity among students more than ever. In the fall, students and their families will face not only the familiar problems – unsafe school buildings, absent nurses and counselors, and gaps in resources for students and teachers – but also a new set of challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Educators and administrators deliberate over the solutions to these challenges, making decisions that dictate students’ futures, but are out of their control. Now, The Bullhorn has anchored student voices across Philly. This fall, students will keep the District accountable, advocating for themselves and for each other. After all, our voices are stronger together.