In a late-semester period at Beyond the Rock, it’s time for a student production team to shoot key footage for their mini-version of “The Breakfast Club.”
“Nicki, I need you for the slide scene,” Grace Upham says from her laptop in the TV class. “Amber, you’re in it.”
“We got this,” tie-dyed Nicole Dionne says confidently. “If we get hurt, it’s for the role.”
After finding a suitably slick hallway, her team does indeed get it. Monitoring the script from his laptop, sophomore Braden Evans announces, “the iconic sliding scene.” Sean DeWard mans the camera as five classmates try several slides down a slope before collapsing in laughter.
Yeah, it’s as fun as it looks.
What’s more, the students of Beyond the Rock, Rockford’s television and film production program, consistently pull down top state awards for their work. This spring they were named for the 10th time as Michigan’s high school television Station of the Year by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, as well as taking top honors in eight categories of the MAB’s Student Broadcast Awards.
For Jeanne Fox, who had a hand in winning two of those awards, the class is about much more than the honors.
“It’s a great time,” says Jeanne, a junior who will study film at the University of Southern California this summer. “We just get to come here and have fun and do what we love. It’s so challenging, but it’s challenging in a fun way.”
The challenging fun of Beyond the Rock this year attracted more than 100 students to its TV 1, 2 and 3 classes. The class produces a weekly news program, makes topical documentaries and creates videos for nonprofits and other community groups. For instance, the class was recruited to create a promotional video for next fall’s “Make It and Take It” scarecrow-building benefit.
“We want students to take their gifts and skills and give back with them,” says Kris DeYoung, the program’s teacher.
Several of this year’s students plan to go into broadcast or film work, as have many other graduates over the years. Seth Wells is a sports anchor for WILX News 10 in Lansing; Mark Pearson is a sports reporter for WDAZ in Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Derek Van Dam is a weather anchor for CNN International. Its most famous alum is Ginger Zee, the popular “Good Morning America” meteorologist who recently resumed the show after having her second child.
DeYoung took the class with Zee when he was a Rockford student (and even produced a “Titanic” music video with her, which GMA aired). He’s been teaching the class for eight years, while studio technician Jason Springer, also a class graduate, just completed his 20th year. Although the program predates them, they’ve overseen a run of top state awards including the last four in a row. The results reflect the students’ commitment to it, DeYoung says.
“For some of them, they treat it like it is their sport,” he says, noting several students put in 14 hours on a snow day. “This is their thing they do, their passion.”
Light Bulbs Turning On
“We run it as a business,” Springer adds. “We have clients and customers. We have to please them up front,” whether its viewers of their news program or community groups they contract with.
Students practice making phone calls to interview public figures, such as former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. They also did a story on the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team, and livestreamed a school forum on the Wolverine World Wide water contamination problem. All students broadcast a livestream every trimester.
Their work has won them multiple awards from the Michigan chapter of the Emmy-granting National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, proudly displayed on their studio wall.
The program has also won the loyalty of students who didn’t necessarily know they had a passion for making film and TV, but take the class and “the light bulbs come on,” as Springer says.
That was true for senior Alina Manzanilla, who took the TV class as a speech credit her junior year and fell in love with it. Now she aims for a career in TV broadcasting, bolstered by spending a day with WOTV 4 Women reporter Maranda.
She recently made a short video about ArtPrize, after having won a state award, along with McKenzie Palmisano, for a news feature on the 2017 ArtPrize entry “Crowns of Courage” about women cancer patients.
“I like finding stories that not everyone knows about and shedding light on it,” says Alina, who plans to attend Michigan State University after studying language in Mexico. Through television, she adds, “Everyone can connect with something, and I like knowing everyone’s connected.”
Telling Real-world Stories
Senior Jackson Carey wants to go into film or television and will attend Grand Rapids Community College. He has worked on documentaries about the Revive & Thrive Project for cancer patients and about an Army ranger suffering from PTSD.
“I just love how real it is, and how it throws me into the world instead of hiding behind a desk,” Jackson says. “I get to go out there and see what people are actually living.”
Senior Andrew Tanner has his sights on a career in movie production, but also teaching, “so I can give the kids the same joy that I got to have with this class.”
“It showed me different stuff I didn’t realize I enjoyed doing,” he says. “It gave me my own little place, like, ‘Hey, look, you are needed here, and you didn’t actually know it.’”
For senior Linsey Holverson, there simply is no place better than the Beyond the Rock classroom studio.
“This is my home,” she says. “This is my default space. It is a family.”