By Jill Fox
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School journalism teacher and advisor Melissa Falkowski was selected as the National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.
An international student press association, Columbia’s goal is to unite student journalists and faculty advisers at schools through educational conferences, idea exchanges and award programs.
Falkowski submitted her application in November, which included sharing her experiences as a journalism advisor and providing examples of student-run publications.
If chosen, she included the scholastic journalism issue she would most like to focus on, which is the passing of New Voices Legislation in the state of Florida, which protects students by blocking administrators from censoring their articles in school newspapers.
“Falkowski’s experiences have heightened her sensitivity to the critical importance of freedom of expression for students,” said Edmund J. Sullivan, CSPA executive director. “With her focus on student publishing media, she looks forward to being a champion for that during her time as National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year.”
She said that at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, students are very fortunate to have a supportive administration, but there are other schools in the state that have experienced censorship issues and criticism from their administration.
“It’s our job as educators to prepare students to go out into the world and be able to criticize the government and say what they think should be changed,” said Falkowski, who added that if students aren’t allowed to do that in high school, we’re doing them a disservice and not really teaching them how to be active citizens and go out and participate in our democracy.
She would like to see the Broward County School District change their code of conduct policy because currently, it is the principal who has the final say in what gets published in student publications across the county. Fourteen states have already passed the legislation blocking administrators from censoring student articles.
In March, she will travel to Columbia University along with 30 students to accept the award and attend the CSPA’s annual Spring Scholastic Convention featuring speakers, professional journalists and over 350 educational sessions.
Besides being a “really great learning opportunity for the kids,”Falkowski said that she and yearbook advisor, Sarah Lerner, both have publications nominated for gold crown awards, and the winners will be presented at the awards convocation at Columbia.
Falkowski is no stranger to traveling with her students. This week, she and Lerner brought eight journalism students to Iowa for a week-long celebration of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tinker vs. Des Moines Supreme Court decision, protecting students’ rights to free speech by expressing themselves on the political and social issues of the day. While in Des Moines, the students spoke on stage about free speech, documented events, and interviewed Mary Beth Tinker for a special issue of The Eagle Eye they plan to release in the coming weeks.
A long-time Coral Springs resident and graduate from J.P. Taravella High School, Falkowski has worked in the journalism department at MSD for 13 years, and has been overseeing the school newspaper, The Eagle Eye for four. She is married to John, a special needs teacher at Ramblewood Middle School and has two children, ages 8 and 2.
Falkowski is also known for her book, We Say #NeverAgain, co-edited with broadcasting teacher Eric Garner which contains essays written by student reporters about the Parkland shooting and their fight for gun control.
“I’m humbled and proud to accept this award because I try really hard to help the kids make everything we produce be the best that it can be, and it’s nice to be recognized for that effort.”
Jill Fox is an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer. She is currently a Senior Account Director at Lon Haber & Co., a leading full-service public relations firm. Fox worked at NBC Miami for eight years after graduating from the University of Miami. She lives in Parkland with her husband, Brian and two children.