JEA announces 2016 National High School Journalist of the Year

JEA announces 2016 National High School Journalist of the Year

During the past school year, hundreds of high school journalists throughout the country worked hours to complete their portfolios for state Journalist of the Year contests, and the 33 state winners who entered the national competition were recognized April 17 at the closing awards ceremony of the JEA/NSPA Spring National High School Journalism Convention in Los Angeles.

Kellen Browning of Davis (California) Senior High School was named the 2016 National High School Journalist of the Year.

Kellen Browning of Davis (California) Senior High School was named the 2016 National High School Journalist of the Year.

When the final results were announced, Kellen Browning of Davis (California) Senior High School, was named the 2016 National High School Journalist of the Year. Browning will receive a $3,000 Sister Rita Jeanne Abicht Scholarship as part of his recognition from the Journalism Education Association.

Six other state winners were named national runners-up. Each will receive an $850 Sister Rita Jeanne Scholarship. They are as follows:

  • Will Clark, St. Mark’s School of Texas, Dallas, Texas (Ray Westbrook, adviser).
  • Katie Pickrell, Mountain Vista High School, Highlands Ranch, Colorado (Mark Newton, MJE, adviser).
  • Justin Curto, Mill Valley High School, Shawnee, Kansas (Kathy Habiger, MJE, adviser).
  • Matthew Casler, William R. Boone High School, Orlando, Florida (Renee Burke, MJE, adviser)
  • Tyler Arden, Reno (Nevada) High School (Christy Briggs, MJE, adviser).
  • Anna Laffrey, East Grand Rapids (Michigan) High School (Katie Michel, adviser).

Named in honor of JEA’s longtime treasurer, the late Sister Rita Jeanne Abicht, FSPA, the scholarships recognize some of the top high school journalists in the country. Portfolios are judged in the month leading up to the JEA/NSPA spring national convention, and scholarship funds are paid directly to the recipients in honor of their work on scholastic media.

The national applications this year were again submitted digitally. The competition attracted dozens of entries in some states and none in others. The 40 members of the scholarship committee were impressed with the depth of experience contained in the state-winning entries.

About the winner

Browning has been a member of his high school journalism program for three years, most recently as editor-in-chief of the Blue Devil Hub, Davis High School’s online newspaper.

“The candidate clearly demonstrates his ability to run a staff and understands the responsibility that entails,” said Awards Committee member Dennis Leizear, CJE and adviser at Padua Academy, Wilmington, Delaware. “He has a clear vision for his publications and works hard to achieve those goals.”

In addition to being an editor, Browning continued to write stories that matter to his community. He wrote an investigative piece that forced district administrators to re-evaluate their budget.

His adviser, Kelly Wilkerson, writes about this story: “He collaborated with another reporter to write an important two-part series on school policies that negatively impacted disabled students. His story detailed how the teardown of our school cafeteria forced disabled students to eat isolated in their classrooms. After its publication, school board members suddenly approved funding for a new facility after years of delay. Kellen’s storytelling is what made this piece compelling; he interviewed cognitively impaired students who told him in their own words that they wished they could meet new friends at lunchtime.”

Browning gets involved in what he is covering and feels as though he becomes part of the story himself.

“Kellen’s passion practically jumped off the page in his essay,” said committee member Claire Burke, CJE and adviser at Lawrence Central High School, Indianapolis. “Clearly (he is) a talented, experienced, passionate, intelligent and compassionate young man.”

Although writing is his forté, he worked to expand his skills, and learned more about photography, video and broadcast. As a leader of his staff, Browning wrote that he feels he is shepherding young journalists, leading the way.

Runners-up honored

Will Clark of Texas captivated the committee with his essay. His inner desire to give a voice to the voiceless is obvious in the gritty stories he has covered. He covers topics that mean something to his community, and packages them with creativity through design and photography.

“Self reflection can be tricky,” said committee member Kari Koshiol, and adviser at Benilde-St. Margarets School, St. Louis Park, Minnesota. “Will Clark, however, tells his own story as easily and as cogently as he tell the stories of others. He clearly understands the importance of reflecting the diverse makeup of his community and of raising awareness for a variety of issues from feminism to suicide to human trafficking.”

Katie Pickrell of Colorado thrives off of helping others, and considers her position a full-time job. In her own words, she feels journalism has become a way of life.

As she started high school, she felt little motivation to rise. Her adviser, Mark Newton, MJE, shared with the judges, that as soon as Pickrell found journalism, it became her place to thrive.

“It is clear that it is her life’s mission to educate her audience, to speak loudly and clearly for those who don’t have the ability or access or talent to do so as effectively as she can,” said committee member Ava Butzu, and adviser at Grand Blanc (Michigan) High School.

Justin Curto of Kansas is a 21st-century journalist with experience in all media.

“Clearly, Curto is a very professional and curious reporter and writer who can do it all,” said committee member Jon Reese, CJE, a JEA state director and adviser at Decatur (Georgia) High School. “His photography is particularly vivid and helps to tell the story. His understanding of print design and storytelling for the Web is advanced, and he offers the audience a wide range of opportunities to enter his stories and learn something new.”

Curto shared with the judges in his essay that “journalism is one of the only careers where you can learn and spread your newfound information to others, and I would love to dedicate my life to learning about something I’m interested in and expanding my knowledge of the media I use to tell stories. I can’t think of a better way to satisfy my curiosity.”

Matthew Casler of Florida is an innovator as well as a leader and journalist. The judges picked up tips from him to apply in their own media programs.

“Matt’s passion for journalism is evident,” said judge Brenda Field, CJE, of Glenview, Illinois, and a JEA state director. “More than just an academically talented student, Matt has embraced the challenges that come with leading a staff, and he has sought to bring his voice to the process of making his staff and publication the best it can be.”

Tyler Arden of Nevada pounded the pavement for stories and went directly to hard-to-get sources. He had a rapport with his district administration and used professionalism to cover controversial topics.

Arden’s adviser, Christy Briggs, MJE, wrote, “Most students put into Tyler’s position often find it hard to be confrontational when students are not turning in assignments or missing deadlines. This editor has proved to be among the few students who are capable of leading with grace and composure.”

Anna Laffrey of Michigan has presented at a TEDx Event, which is affiliated with the organization famous for TED Talks. Her adviser, Katie Michel, feels she is empowered with her job as editor-in-chief of their newspaper.

“Anna’s portfolio showcases each and every aspect of what it means to be a journalist,” said committee member Natalie Niemeyer, CJE, and adviser at Des Moines (Iowa) East High School. “Anna not only has shown how she can do everything, but she does it well. She chooses to write about things that are controversial. Anna’s risky stories are the type of stories her peers want to read and parents need to read.”

State winners

The full list of state winners entered in the 2016 national competition are below. After this year’s contest, we reached out for permission to share their portfolio URL to give future applicants a variety of examples, and they are linked below. (Please note JEA does not host or maintain any digital portfolios):

ALABAMA: Rebecca Griesbach, Northridge High School, Tuscaloosa (Rhonda Lane, adviser)

ARIZONA: Benjamin Petersen, The Gregory School, Tucson (Robert Mossman, adviser)

ARKANSAS: Hannah Coffman, Southside High School, Fort Smith (Susan Colyer, MJE, adviser)

CALIFORNIA: Kellen Browning, Davis Senior High School, Davis (Kelly Wilkerson, adviser)

COLORADO: Katie Pickrell, Mountain Vista High School, Highlands Ranch (Mark Newton, MJE, adviser)

FLORIDA: Matthew Casler, William R. Boone High School, Orlando (Renee Burke, MJE, adviser)

GEORGIA: Tiernan O’Neill, Clarke Central High School, Athens (David Ragsdale, CJE, adviser)

IDAHO: Sarah Wells, Sandpoint High School, Sandpoint (William Love, adviser)

ILLINOIS: Hannah Boufford, Libertyville High School, Libertyville (Michael Gluskin, adviser)

INDIANA: Lydia Gerike, Portage High School, Portage (Melissa Deavers-Lowie, CJE, adviser)

IOWA: Molly Hunter, George Washington High School, Cedar Rapids (Kyle Phillips, CJE, adviser)

KANSAS: Justin Curto Mill, Valley High School, Shawnee (Kathy Habiger, MJE, adviser)

KENTUCKY: Amanda Tu, duPont Manual High School, Louisville (James Miller, adviser)

MASSACHUSETTS: Nathaniel Bolter, Newton South High School, Newton (Brian Baron, CJE, adviser)

MICHIGAN: Anna Laffrey, East Grand Rapids High School, East Grand Rapids (Katie Michel, adviser)

MINNESOTA: Maxine Whitely, Blake School, Minneapolis (Anna Reid, adviser)

MISSOURI: Lindsay Alfermann, Washington High School, Washington (Michelle Turner, adviser)

MONTANA: Taylor Featherman, Big Sky High School, Missoula (Kim Lucostic, adviser)

NEBRASKA: Natalie Nepper, Omaha Central High School, Omaha (Hillary Blayney, adviser)

NEVADA: Tyler Arden, Reno High School, Reno (Christy Briggs, MJE, adviser)

NEW JERSEY: Lilia Wood, Glen Rock High School, Glen Rock (Jason Toncic, adviser)

NORTH CAROLINA: Arijit Sen, West Henderson High School, Hendersonville (Brenda Gorsuch, MJE, adviser)

NORTH DAKOTA: Alexandria Stroh, West Fargo Sheyenne High School, West Fargo (Stephanie Cwikla, adviser)

OHIO: Madeline Weikel, Lakota East High School, Liberty Township (Dean Hume, adviser)

OREGON: Takur Conlu, South Salem High School, Salem (Brian Eriksen, CJE, adviser)

PENNSYLVANIA: Justice Bennett, Malvern Preparatory School, Malvern (Kate Plows, CJE, adviser)

SOUTH CAROLINA: Cole Lowery, Summerville High School, Summerville (AJ Chambers, adviser)

TENNESSEE: Madelyn Bomar, Christ Presbyterian Academy, Nashville (Heather Nagel, CJE, adviser)

TEXAS: Will Clark, St. Mark’s School of Texas, Dallas (Ray Westbrook, adviser)

VIRGINIA: Faith Runnells, Harrisonburg High School, Harrisonburg (Valerie Kibler, CJE, adviser)

WASHINGTON: Jacoy Willis, Ingelmoor High School, Kenmore (Kirsten Vesely, CJE, adviser)

WISCONSIN: Emma Kumer, Brookfield Central High School, Brookfield (Thomas Juran, adviser)

WYOMING: Hunter Hicks, Cody High School, Cody (Erika Quick, adviser)

The Journalism Education is a national organization of scholastic journalism teachers and school media advisers. Its headquarters is at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. For more information about the JEA or its National High School Journalist of the Year program, please go to or call 785-532-5532.

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