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St. Thomas’ ThreeSixty program instills a passion for the basics in students

Kevin Featherly//March 17, 2010//

St. Thomas’ ThreeSixty program instills a passion for the basics in students

Kevin Featherly//March 17, 2010//

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It’s a great idea that’s going down in flames.

Ty Heimerl, 15, a junior at New Prague High School, wanted to write a story for the University of St. Thomas’ ThreeSixty Journalism website about kids who text while driving.

He thought he’d made the big score: a student who crashed his car while texting—and said he was willing to talk about it. Except, now he’s not: “He doesn’t want to go on the record,” Heimerl fumes.

“So we’re struggling with that,” chimes in Annie Nelson, 28, ThreeSixty’s effervescent editor, addressing Heimerl and the other teenage editorial board members in ThreeSixty’s office in the basement of the O’Shaughnessy Frey Library on the St. Paul campus of St. Thomas.

“But what an incredible find!”

These kids are among 400 high school students and teachers from St. Paul, St. Louis Park, Minneapolis, Isanti and elsewhere who enroll annually in ThreeSixty, formerly known as the Urban Journalism Workshop.

Once a summer program, ThreeSixty now operates year-round, with participants attending after-school classes, summer camps, teacher training and weekend workshops. Students post original articles, photo essays and videos to the schools’ website, with the guidance of seasoned pros like Lynda McDonnell.

McDonnell, 59, ThreeSixty’s executive director, worked at the St. Paul Pioneer Press as a reporter and political editor for 20 years. Before that she spent seven years at the Star Tribune. She left the PiPress in 2002 to take the top job at ThreeSixty.

She says ThreeSixty’s aim is to introduce diverse voices to journalism through intense, hands-on instruction. In the process, students strengthen their writing skills, college-readiness and civic awareness.

Which, incidentally, is something McDonnell often must explain to the students’ bemused parents. “[They ask], ‘What are you doing to my child? You’re getting them all excited about a profession that appears to be dying,’” McDonnell says.

Practicing journalism, even temporarily, challenges kids to engage in critical thinking, she tells them. It hones writing and editing skills that are universally useful. “I don’t care if you are a cop or a lawyer or a teacher,” McDonnell says. “These are really valuable skills.”

Besides, McDonnell maintains a strong belief in journalism. “I’m almost 60, and I still believe that journalism can make a difference.”

Human interest

Parents may have reason to worry about journalism’s future business prospects. But if the student work posted on is any indication, they have little to worry about the future of quality journalistic output.

Homophobia hurts, which Helen Sarka knows first-hand. One day, Helen’s mother came to pick her up from school and her girlfriend gave her a goodbye kiss.

“These girls were, like, ‘Oh my god, ew! You’s lesbians! Ugh. You’re going to hell, dykes!’ and they didn’t stop yelling ‘till I got in the car, Helen said.”

— “Schools see growth in GLBT support groups” (September 2009), by ThreeSixty editorial board member and St. Louis Park High School student Grace Pastoor (


“It was like a flag exploding, an electric mesh of red, white and blue lights reflecting in the rearview mirror. My friend pulled his car over. Seatbelts clicked and sweatshirts were tossed to hide the evidence—the two cases of beer beside me in the back seat.”

“Drink knot” (November 2007), by ThreeSixty student reporter Tanya Bull (

As the basement editorial board meeting progresses, nine student journalists take turns presenting story ideas.

Ricardo Fjelstad de Santiago, 18, a senior at St. Paul’s Highland Park Senior High School, pitches one about Aztec dance, something he and some fellow Latino classmates have been participating in. “I want to do something fun,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of pictures to go along with it. I just need to come up with a story.”

Pastoor pitches a more ominous story about the pitfalls of participating in Omegle, an anonymous—and creepy—online chat room that a 13-year-old girl Pastoor knows visits almost daily. “Chats are completely anonymous,” the website promises in its prurient come-on, “although there is nothing to stop you from revealing personal details if you would like.”

Pastoor is appalled.

“What happens,” she says, “is it is usually creepy, oversexed teenage boys who go on anonymously and ask for naked pictures of girls.” Her 13-year-old acquaintance likes to pretend she is 17 when she visits the site. “She hasn’t sent anybody pictures yet,” Pastoor says. “If she did, I would probably kill her.”

One of ThreeSixty’s strengths is that it gives young people an outlet to examine social issues that are relevant—and sometimes uncomfortably close—to their own lives, McDonnell says, which also is one of journalism’s great powers. “It helps you connect the dots between personal experience and these larger questions,” she says.

ThreeSixty was launched in 1971 at the University of Minnesota as the Urban Journalism Workshop. Its original mission was to attract high school students of color into journalism.

“It was partly in response to the urban riots of the late 1960s and criticism of the media for not being aware of the huge levels of unrest in those communities,” McDonnell says, “in part because newsrooms were almost entirely white.”

The program was operated and jointly funded for 30 years by the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune as a two-week summer camp, McDonnell says.

In 2001, St. Thomas instructors Dave Nimmer, Bob Craig and Kathleen Stauffer came up with the idea of raising money to operate it as a year-round program. A year later, McDonnell was brought in to orchestrate the change.

“My line is that I spend half my time begging and half my time nagging,” she says. “Because we rely on donations and this great support and partnership we’ve had with St. Thomas.”

Return of the old-timers

One of the Urban Journalism Workshop’s limitations was that it did not really foster continuing relationships with its alumni, McDonnell says.

That’s changing.

On the same Saturday that the editorial board met, McDonnell hauled in four of the program’s alums—including Amy Hang, 22, a Mounds Park Academy graduate who now works as a field representative for U.S. Sen. Al Franken. Together, they phoned up donors and brainstormed ways to help mentor the current batch of ThreeSixty students.

Levi Ismail passed through the program as an Anoka High School student. He is now a student at St. Thomas majoring in communication and journalism who wants to become a broadcaster. Ismail credits ThreeSixty with steering him in that direction.

“I fell in love with the fact that I could be interested in so many different aspects of [journalism], whether it be like being in front of a camera or writing a story or coming up with story ideas,” he says. “I came to ThreeSixty and they gave me all that kind of freedom.”

That’s how it’s supposed to work, McDonnell says: “What students consistently tell us is that because of this experience they learned to write better, to ask better questions and to be more interested in what’s going on in the world.”

The program still emphasizes recruitment of minority, low-income and immigrant students, McDonnell says, but it has broadened its scope.

“About half of our kids are low-income kids, about half to 70 percent are students of color,” she says, adding that those communities are still under-represented in the media. “But we have students from Edina, New Prague, Isanti—there is a real range,” she says.

The common denominator is a desire to ask questions and tell stories. And high school is a good time to nurture in students’ habits of question-asking and storytelling.

One reason is that kids in high school generally have not yet grown cynical about the world they occupy, McDonnell says. “They want to believe that our institutions can work and that they can make a difference.”

The most rewarding thing about ThreeSixty for McDonnell is that it allows her to pass on deeply ingrained journalistic values about fair, high quality and relevant civic storytelling to a new generation.

“Like any value,” she says, “those don’t automatically get passed through with the fluoride in the water. You have to teach them, and kids have to see from you that you have a passion and conviction and that this matters. I think we’re passing that along.”

ThreeSixty is online at

ThreeSixty alums working in journalism
Hlee Lee TPT-Ch. 2, assistant producer; St. Paul
Laura Lee KSTP, production assistant;  Minneapolis
Sara Boyd Web producer, WCCO-TV; Minneapolis
Dhomo Ricks TV reporter;  Lynchburg, Va.
Damon Maloney TV reporter; Ark.
Emma Carew print reporter, Chronicle of Philanthropy; Washington, D.C.
Bao Vang TV reporter; Wausau, Wis.

The ThreeSixty File
Program: ThreeSixty Journalism at the University of St. Thomas
Founded: In 1971 as the Urban Journalism Workshop at the University of Minnesota; moved to St. Thomas in 2001.
Budget: $200,000 annually: 72 percent from foundations, the rest from individual donors. These include the Carl & Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation ($30,000), Best Buy Children’s Foundation ($20,000) the University of St. Thomas ($25,000 and in-kind support) and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Advised Fund ($15,000).
Who is served: ThreeSixty works with more than 400 high school students and teachers each year via after-school classes, weekend workshops, teacher training, career fair and a summer camp. Roughly 175 students have completed the program’s summer camp since 2001.
Outcomes: Dozens of ThreeSixty alumni have gone on to study journalism in college. Seven have finished college and are currently working in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Arkansas, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Why the name “ThreeSixty”? Executive Director Lynda McDonnell: “The ThreeSixty board selected that name. It is designed to reflect both that range of [student] perspectives and that range of media that students are learning to use. We are still primarily print and photography. We would like to do more video and audio.”

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