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Rockford High broadcasters earn accolade

With new award, Beyond the Rock's reach spans nationwide

RockfordBeyond the Rock headquarters at Rockford High School is indistinguishable from a professional broadcast newsroom, with activity buzzing in all corners of the network’s main hub.

It’s all hustle and bustle as enterprising students work at a rapid clip, planning, coordinating filming and editing video news projects for the school and the community as a whole.

“The students are put in a position where it’s part class, and it’s part job,” said video production teacher Kris DeYoung. “It’s business. … It’s work.”

And the work is paying off.

The network has raked in a wall full of High School Station of the Year awards from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, and another state award could be coming when this year’s winners are announced on March 18. 

Most recently, the network earned a National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences award for “Knock ‘Em Out,” which won first place in the news report category in early February. The five-minute piece is about Rockford seventh-grader Annika Meijer, who was diagnosed in 2021 with pediatric medulloblastoma and posterior fossa syndrome

‘It’s just been really cool to be able to highlight the things that are important to me, and reach everybody in the community with these things, just with this class.’

— senior Emily Pittman, Beyond the Rock associate editor

The video spotlights Annika, her successful treatment and the work her family has done to establish the nonprofit Anni’s Army Foundation, which raises funds for pediatric brain cancer research and treatment.

National Award a First for BTR

Seniors Emily Pittman, BTR’s associate producer, and Will McKanna worked on “Knock ‘Em Out” with 2023 graduates Natalie Allshouse and Mackenzie Davison.

The piece is the first in the network’s 20-plus-year history to land a national award, which the crew says is an Emmy equivalent.

“It’s definitely uncharted waters for the program,” said Will, who conducted interviews with the Meijer family and voiced the project. “We’ve never had a project like this get recognized on the national level, so it’s a weird feeling. There’s no precedent.

“All I know is that it’s really exciting, both for myself and the team I worked with. … It’s also exciting for the family I covered.”

Senior Emily Pittman, associate editor, demonstrates working in front of a green screen

Emily couldn’t believe the piece snagged a first-place award. She said her phone was “blowing up” with text messages from BTR’s executive producer, senior Trina Varano, when the winners were announced via livestream on Feb. 1.

“I was like, oh my gosh, I won,” Emily said. She dashed out of class and up the flights of stairs to BTR headquarters, where Will was also getting the news.

Will said he’s proud of the fact that the video helped the Meijers promote their work to support cancer research; that, he said, was the real honor. 

“In my mind, the awards are all kind of superlative achievements. While they mean something, they’re largely superficial to what the program means,” Will said. “In essence, it’s creating stories, making storylines and helping to inform the public. … It definitely goes beyond the awards, and it’s really beneficial to all of us individually, and we just hope it can be the same for everyone in the community as well.”

Community Reach

In addition to award-winning features, news broadcasts, sports coverage, livestreams and shorts, the team at BTR also takes on community assignments. 

“We tell our students, ‘Use your skills to give back,’” said DeYoung.

And they do. 

BTR has produced videos for the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, the Rockford Education Foundation, the annual Mitchell’s Run Thru Rockford 5k fundraiser for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy and other causes.

“It’s just been really cool to be able to highlight the things that are important to me, and reach everybody in the community with these things, just with this class,” Emily said.

Trina, who DeYoung said sometimes puts in 40 hours of work a week for the network alone, said she’s been exposed to some things she never knew she’d care so deeply about.

“There’s a lot more that I realized how important it would be to me,” she said.

Sports has become a big part of Trina’s life thanks to BTR, as has uplifting and celebrating women. She got to combine those two interests in a profile of Rockford’s first female varsity football player.

“I like to highlight women and all their achievements,” Trina said. “That was really cool.” 

She’s also highlighted veterans in the community.

It’s been amazing, Trina said, to see “how much we can impact others through stories like that,” and to witness “the importance of really getting out that information.”

‘We put the ball in their hands and say, ‘Hey it’s a great platform, but it’s up to you how to use it.’ It’s pretty awesome to see what they come up with.’

— Kris DeYoung, video production teacher

Getting a Leg Up on Careers

Trina is preparing to pursue broadcasting in college and beyond, and her exposure to the craft through BTR has given her a head start. She’s even had a chance to cover stories alongside professional news organizations, sometimes even scooping them.

“To be able to go and have other news stations there and to know that you’re pretty much right at their level is really cool,” Trina said.

Even for those who aren’t sold on a career in broadcasting or journalism, BTR has value. Will, for example, plans to study statistics at the University of Michigan, but he said he’s honed his communication skills during his time with the program, and that will no doubt come in handy in any field.

“This program has helped deliver a lot of positive impacts, both in the technical skills and in personability, greeting people, meeting new people, being comfortable asking questions and just community building,” Will said.

Inside the BTR studio on the lower level of Rockford High, Emily marveled at the professional-grade equipment at her disposal, from cameras and soundboards to microphones and lighting setups.

“It’s just cool to be able to use all this equipment and learn so much out of it in a high-school class,” she said. “I feel like … if I go into this field, I’ll know what to do.”

Emily and Trina said it’s going to be hard to let go of the program when they graduate, but they take comfort in knowing it will be in good hands.

“There’s not a single junior that I wouldn’t trust to run this program next year,” Trina said. “It’s sad, because it’s hard to leave, but they’re going to do a great job and we’re all so proud of them.”

DeYoung and video technician Jason Springer say they are exceptionally proud of what their students have achieved. They’ve seen some go on to land positions at CNN and “Good Morning America,” among other outlets.

The key, they said, is to let students guide BTR’s trajectory.

“We put the ball in their hands and say, ‘Hey it’s a great platform but it’s up to you how to use it,’” DeYoung said. “It’s pretty awesome to see what they come up with.”

Read more from Rockford: 
Hark! I hear she’s Teacher of the Year
What does it mean to be a Ram?

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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