Writing is a powerful medium of conveying a message to an audience as well as quickly sharing news in a detailed and accurate manner so as to educate students on the major events in their community. This skill is one of my personal strong suits because I find that I am able to take the information that I learn in the news gathering process and piece it together in an accurate manner that is conducive to educating and leaving an impact on my readers. The following pieces of work are stories and news reports that most exemplify my ability as a journalist to tell the stories of students at the school and report dependably on the news in my community.
Super K Saves the Day
For the most recent issue of the Eagle Eye, we published a special issue in preparation for the upcoming Wish Week. In our feature section, we decided to review past Wish Weeks and their impact on the school, as well as the stories of individual teachers and students that make a big difference in the event every year. I wrote about Brian Wood, a math teacher and basketball coach at the school who was always involved in the assemblies and fundraisers throughout the week. The final copy was published in issue three of the Eagle Eye.
This photo was taken by Conner Davis and appeared in a package with my story to provide context for the introduction.
If there is one word that math teacher, Brian wood would use to describe his emotions in the photo above, it would be excitement. This moment came after Vista’s 2017 Wish Kid, Kenyan, took on his secret-superhero identity of Super K and defeated villains, who had attempted to control the school, with one big punch.
“I was trying to get him to not be so nervous in front of everybody and show his muscles,” Wood said.
In order to grant Kenyan’s wish, to be a superhero, performing arts students donned villainous garb and put on a production. Principal Mike Weaver was taken hostage by Vista graduates Amelia Amicarella and Mark Twal as well as junior Nate Cushing and senior Val Urquhart, who proceeded to take over the school and leave it in dire straits that only a true hero could overcome. It was then, that Kenyan revealed his secret to save the school at the closing assembly, complete with fog machines, spotlights and other special effects, he demonstrated his powers and dominated the evil tricksters.
The school celebrated Super K’s victory and he spent the remainder of the day traveling throughout Vista as well as Mountain Ridge Middle School with Wood, the entourage of student leadership and staff to support him.
When the smoke settled and Kenyan’s visit was over, a national-record total of $127,000 was raised for the Wish Kid and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The sum originated from the student body, parents, sponsors and all of Vista’s feeder schools. Together, they were able to grant 14 wishes on top of Kenyan’s. Kenyan was sent to Disney World to meet other superheros using the funds raised by the community. Wood was with Student Leadership Adviser, Lindsey Jaffe and the rest of the student government when he heard the total.
“It seemed like we were going to beat the year before, the week seemed bigger but you never really know that, so that was an insane amount of money,” Wood said. “I started doing the math of how much money that would be per person and starting thinking about how much of the big donations they must have gotten from companies and donors.”
Wood credits the massive success of the week to the work ethic and dedication of Student Leadership throughout the year. The group began searching for sponsors during summer and met one week before school started, to begin planning for which day of the week, each restaurant or fundraiser sponsor would be delegated to.
“I got to see them in August and they are already working on Wish Week,” Wood said. “We had cool stuff before Jaffe took over leadership but it wasn’t like it is now. We obviously have great kids, they put in a hell-of-a-lot of work.”
Wood is basketball coach and has taught math classes at the school for 10 years, six of which have included Wish Week. Jaidyn was the first Wish Kid to come to Vista in 2013, followed by Dakota, Asher, Marlee and Kenyan. Wood was involved in the assemblies during Dakota’s week but became more invested in the whole process when Asher came to the school. One path that his involvement took was as a judge for the Wish Week talent show, Vista Idol.
“I think that was kind of when all of us realized what a big deal it could be,” Wood said. I think personally that I love kids and I think kids usually feel fairly comfortable around me.”
Unfortunately, he has been unable to participate in the show since Asher’s year due to the scheduling of his team’s basketball games on the same night.
The influence Wish Week has on the hearts and minds of students strikes a chord with Wood because of the opportunity it provides for them to contribute to a meaningful cause and understand the struggle of the children that the school takes under its wing.
“I think the biggest reason that [Wish Week] is important to me is, we live in a place where most people have most of the things they need and I think it’s important in some way for kids to get a chance to put something above them and see someone who struggles and kind of get outside the bubble for a minute,” Wood said.
It’s often during the week that students, the youngest class specifically, receive and take advantage of the opportunity to become more involved in Vista’s events and school spirit.
“I think a lot of times with freshmen it’s the week when they finally immerse themselves in Mountain Vista,” Wood said.
Outside of the fact that the special week enables students to gain a new perspective on their community and appreciate their good fortune, Wood supports Wish Week because of his strong, personal connection to the children that are adopted by the school. A father of two, ages seven and four, he has all the more reason to appreciate the impact the week has on every kid.
“I was the person who never cried at a movie or anything until I had kids and now I cry at commercials and stuff,” Wood said. “Just seeing these kids it’s hard. Gabby is just a little bit older than my daughter, Carly so to see that and then to see what we are going to be able to do and the whole the purpose of a wish is just to take the grind and the stress of what they are going through away for a day.”
Wood will continue his involvement in the upcoming Wish Week, by helping to run the assemblies as well as walk Gabby around the school. He will also be seen as a referee in the Ruff ‘n Tuff volleyball competition.
“[Wish Week] is one of the main reasons I want to be here,” Wood said. “It’s my favorite week of the year. It makes me sad and happy all at the same time.”
CommUNITY Matters Slate Wins Douglas County Board of Education Election
The Douglas County Board of Education has been a source of controversy for many years and the terms of four candidates were due to end in 2017, leaving four seats open in the November election. Aware of the fact that this election would be the tipping point for many important policies, I knew it was my responsibility as a journalist to inform students in the county about the result of the election and how it would impact their education. I was able to enter the candidates’ watch party when it became clear that they would win the race and had the opportunity to conduct an interview with them as well as a campaign manager and one of the slate’s largest community supporters. I published this story on our website, breaking the news to students who hadn’t followed the process on social media as well as educating them on the plans of the slate. As a journalist, I knew I needed to make it clear that neither myself nor MV Media formed any sort of bias in the election in order to tell an accurate story. Therefore, I constantly repeat the idea that I am sharing the beliefs of the candidates themselves, not MV Media, when discussing policies. I learned a vital lesson, however, because in my determination to publish the story as quickly as possible I did not contact the members of the losing slate for comment. Taking this action would have further increased my credibility and strengthened my fair approach to the news.
On September 9, Anthony Graziano, Krista Holtzmann, Kevin Leung and Chris Schor began campaigning as a part of the commUNITY Matters slate for election to the Douglas County School District Board of Education.
The group ran on a platform against the school voucher program, which has been a source of bitter controversy in the school district since the election of 2009. The candidates also ran for election in hopes that they would be able to reverse the rate of teacher turnover in the district, which they believe is due to the fact that the voices of teachers and parents in the community had been ignored.
After two months of campaigning and years of planning, the work of the four candidates culminated in a victory in the school board election November 7.
Their election essentially ends the movement to implement the nationally-driven voucher program in schools previously advocated by Republican-backed candidates and shifts the focus locally to the students of Douglas County.
“We want to focus on students because we’re the school board and the public education system is about the students,” Schor said.
The new board members see resolving the issue of teacher turnover as paramount to equipping schools with the tools necessary to ensure student success. In order to accomplish this, they plan to work to a mill-levy override, which would provide DCSD funds to use that are not restricted to the district’s capital need, which includes costs for repairs needed to buildings and other district facilities.
“[The mill-levy override] is something that we absolutely need to pursue from day one,” Graziano said. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of great support from the community, including the current (interim) superintendent who believes we need to pursue this because our current fiscal situation is unsustainable. For us, once we get into office it’s something that we really need to have conversations with our community about getting that on the ballot in 2018.”
According to Holtzmann, this financial policy would help the board in ensuring that money meant for the classroom reaches the classroom. The board would need to vote after acquiring adequate community support to place the request on the ballot.
The newly-elected officials, who will take office on a date that will be determined following officialization of the election, credit a mass outpouring of support from the voters of the county for their victory. Parents and teachers took to social media, made phone calls and canvassed neighborhoods to share their opinion supporting the candidates. “We want to be a mouthpiece for everyone out there in the community,” Graziano said.
Jason Virdin, creator of the Facebook page Douglas County Parents, has been fighting against education reform and for representation like Graziano, Holtzmann, Schor and Leung via his social media platform since 2015. He was present at the watch party election night for the candidates and shared in their excitement at the victory.
“[We need] board directors that actually listen to the community,” Virdin said. “That’s one of the biggest problems we’ve seen in the past few years. We have had parents who have tried to alert the board to some of the problems in the district. We’ve had teachers who have tried to do the same thing and have either been ridiculed or just outright ignored. It’s not the way to run a school district. Parents and students are stakeholders in your district. You’ve got to listen to the parents and the teachers and make sure their needs are being met.”
When it all comes down to it, the commUNITY slate characterizes their policy as simply doing what they believe is best for the students. Although a high level of tension existed between members of both slates and supporters of each group of candidates, Graziano, Holtzmann, Schor and Leung indicated they hope a positive community can be formed.
Utilizing open and transparent communication, the board members said they hope to hear from community members on both sides of issues to compromise and guide the district to solutions that benefit all kids receiving an education in Douglas County.
““The most exciting thing is that we can finally start doing what we have been wanting to do,” Holtzmann said. “We can serve our community, we can volunteer our time and do our best for the students.”
Deputy Parrish’s Connection to the School
Before students returned to school from Winter Break, a police officer was shot and killed in an ambush on authorities during a disturbance call. In the days following the tragedy, I discovered that the wife of the fallen officer, Grace Moehlenpah, graduated from Mountain Vista and began writing a story to share the information with the school community. To gather all of my information, I interviewed a former teacher of Moehlenpah’s, the School Resource Officer and a student who is the daughter of a police officer. In addition, I gathered facts online from credible sources such as the Denver Post and 9 News. Due to the fact that the investigation of the shooting was in progress while I was writing this report, it was vital that I verified my information regarding the event so as not to present any false or misleading facts. This story was published on the Vista Now website.
Early on the morning of New Year’s Eve, police officers responded to a disturbance at a Highlands Ranch apartment complex. During the subsequent events, five officers were wounded, one fatally shot, by a suspect experiencing a mental crisis.
The life of Deputy Zackari Parrish, 29, was claimed in the attack on authorities that morning.
Parrish was sworn in as a member of the Castle Rock Police Department in 2015 by Chief Jack Cauley, where he served for more than two years before moving to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in order to be closer to his family.
“He had a smile. A firm handshake,” Cauley told The Denver Post. “I could tell by his presence and see in his eyes he was excited to be here.”
Officer Parrish’s life was honored in a candle light vigil on January 1 as well as during a funeral service open to the general public on January 5. A procession of first responders and law enforcement transported his casket to Cherry Hills Community Church for the service, where thousands of people viewed the ceremony. A few pf these moments of reflection on the first responder’s life carried especially profound meaning for viewers.
“What really got to me [at the funeral] was the military aspect of it. Instead of a 21 gun salute, they had a 21 rings of the bell, that was pretty powerful,” Deputy Vance Fleet, School Resource Officer for Mountain Vista and member of the procession for the service, said. “They had a live [dispatcher] get on there and they called out his call sign, and they called it three times and of course he is not answering and then they just say ‘Deputy Parrish rest in peace, end of watch’ and they give the date and time and all of that.”
The 21-bell salute is often used as a substitute for the firing party at the memorial of a fallen member of law enforcement.
The officer is survived by two daughters and his wife, Grace Moehlenpah, who spoke about her husband at the vigil. Moehlenpah wore his badge and was supported by her daughter, who commanded her mother to “be happy.”
“I thought it was really sad that the little girl kind of was aware a little of what was going on but still trying to help her mom get through it,” senior Hannah Tucker said.
Moehlenpah graduated from Mountain Vista in 2006, and was co-host of the student-run Vista Vision television show. Staff members who have worked at the school for a long enough period of time recall Moehlenpah as an intelligent and kind student.
“She is still, to this day, one of my favorite students. She is just an awesome, awesome human being,” English teacher Jake Sabot said. “She was one of those students who brought the level of the class up just by being there.”
Sabot heard the news of the attack from his sister-in-law, who graduated in the same class as Moehlenpah, through his wife. His first reaction, unaware of the specifics of the case, was that the wife of Officer Parrish was actually one of the people in the apartment where the shooting took place. Sabot’s connection to Deputy Parrish’s wife magnified the impact of the true events of December 31
“Once I had found out what really happened, it was just devastating. The thought of that happening to a person like her, I can’t even fathom how awful that is,” Sabot said. “Knowing that the person that Grace ended up with has got to be equally as amazing as she is and to think about the pain that she must be going through and having to explain to her children that daddy’s gone and he is not coming back just tore me apart.”
Deputy Parrish’s family as well as first responders in general received a mass outpouring of support and appreciation from the community following the tragedy. On his way into Mountain Ridge Middle School for a workout, Officer Fleet was surprised by chalk drawings on the school sidewalk honoring those with “blue blood” and expressing appreciation for their service. Fleet explained that he hopes the events that transpired over break help students in realizing that officers are working to help the community.
A GoFundMe page was set up in order to support Moehlenpah and her daughters. So far, $336,111 has been raised out of the page goal of $350,000.
“Just realize that the Sheriff’s Office is out there to protect our community, that’s what we do,” Fleet said. “It has been amazing how much of the community has come forward.”