‘Simpson Street’ is more than a newspaper
When a twelve-year-old girl named Deidre Green first arrived at the Simpson Street Free Press, she lacked confidence and felt overwhelmed by the idea of working for Dane County’s teen newspaper. She wouldn’t have even applied for the opportunity without encouragement from one of her middle school teachers, who also served on the nonprofit’s board. Teachers dubbed the C-student a “kid on the fence,” and her mother wasn’t going to let any chance slip by.
“My mom was like, ‘Yes, yes, you’re going to do it!'” laughs Green.
Working for the newspaper meant showing up at least twice a week, writing articles and earning a stipend. “It really became a nice community and a family for me,” says Green. “It really helped me personally to become more confident in myself in the things that I can do. I can still carry all the skills with me that I learned.”
Twelve years after arriving at Simpson Street, the once struggling preteen is now a bright University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate. Her name shines on a growing list of achievement-gap fighters across the Dane County area.
Considering Green has spent half her life working at Simpson Street, it’s fitting she’s leading the charge as the publication’s managing editor and helping kids who often relate to her childhood experiences. In addition to researching and writing, kids also receive tutoring through a cadre of retired teachers, journalists and volunteers.
“All of the students improve grades,” says Green. “We keep their report cards to see how they’re doing.”
This year they’re doing extremely well, with every high school senior pursuing higher education. It’s become an expectation since the paper started in 1992, giving a nudge to countless students on the fence. Right now, more than two hundred students participate in the group’s network of six regional publications, including one in Spanish.
About one hundred kids are also on waiting lists, and every so often, word-of-mouth reviews bring parents to the newspaper in tears, nearly begging staffers to take on their children.
Students must go through an interview process first. After that, they receive business cards and earn money for their articles. Even though the work can be rigorous, the buy-in keeps them motivated.
“For a lot of students, it’s the first time they’re relating academics to a positive environment,” says assistant editor Mckenna Kohlenberg. She studied English but now also finds herself assisting in the roles of counselor, mentor and friend.
“You don’t think that’s a part of your job as an editor of a newspaper,” says Kohlenberg. “They come to us with everything.”
Lending a sense of community is perhaps a key reason for Simpson Street‘s success, even in a tough climate. Educators are still reeling from a recent ranking by the 24/7 Wall Street website that named Wisconsin the worst state in the country for Black Americans. It analyzed data based on several factors including unemployment, incarceration rates, income and mortality rates. The news stunned people across the state, but it came as no surprise to the folks at Simpson Street.
In fact, Kohlenberg calls Madison a “best-of-worst-of-city” because it often finds itself on many best places to live lists, but it seems to hit near or at the bottom of other rankings when it comes to the achievement gap and related issues.
“It doesn’t make sense,” says Kohlenberg. “It’s paradoxical and there’s no reason for that.”
“Madison is a city with so many resources,” Green says. “It’s a shame that our achievement gap is so large.”
That is why so many people on staff at Simpson Street take the mission personally. Even the founder and executive director Jim Kramer works for free, helping the newspaper grow and mandating that staff members stay relevant with curriculum changes.
“I don’t think we would’ve been half as successful with this organization if it wasn’t for him,” says Green. “I don’t know many executive directors who do the work he does and don’t get paid.”
Funding is tight. Although the organization receives donations and grants, it needs more money to get kids off the waiting list. Currently, Simpson Street is working on a hard-copy print edition because kids like holding their articles in their hands. The publication has been online-only for a few years.
As a student who often wrote about the achievement gap in her teen years, Green is living proof that Simpson Street makes a difference. Though students come from all backgrounds, the ones who need a nudge certainly benefit from its efforts.
“[It changed my life] in many, many ways,” says Green. She believes she would have gone to college on her own, but her involvement at SSFP nearly guaranteed she’d finish. As a first-generation graduate, she’s hoping her experience influences hundreds of other young students on the brink.
“The Simpson Street Free Press is a vital part of this community,” says Green. “I think we do this amazing work just so we can try to help the next person grow up to be a helper—another achievement gap fighter.”