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Simpson Street Free Press

Teen editor Cecilia Gonzales, 16, left, works with staff writer Masha Vodyanik, 13, on a story at the Simpson Street Free Press office in Monona in 2010.

The other night I stopped by the South Towne newsroom of the Simpson Street Free Press, that nifty little paper that middle and high school kids, mostly from south Madison, put together every month.

The young writers and editors were all gathered around a panel featuring some of the top names at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- professor Janet Mertz from the department of oncology; Jennifer Sheridan, a scientist in the College of Engineering; and professor Nancy Mathews, director of the university’s prestigious Morgridge Center. Andrea Gilmore, who worked at the Free Press in her high school days and is now doing graduate work at the UW School of Nursing, served as moderator.

The panelists had been invited because the youngsters -- especially the girls -- wanted to hear what these faculty members had to say about careers for women in science and engineering. In doing their research, the paper’s staffers had learned about the controversial remarks made by Lawrence Summers when he was president of Harvard University, in which he claimed that “innate differences” between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in those two professions.

The kids figured that a good way to find out just how true that is was to talk firsthand with women who have done well in science and engineering.

The three professors explained the real reason women have trouble getting ahead in those fields and it has nothing to do with “innate differences” between them and men. Rather, it has everything to do with the tables being stacked against them in these male-dominated professions. But the barriers are starting to tumble, the kids learned, as they got a real-life lesson on how hard work and a good education can lead to so many great things.

I tell you all this to point out just how unique the Simpson Street Free Press program is. It’s one of the few success stories in bridging that stubborn racial learning gap. The 35 to 40 students involved in the program at any one time almost immediately see their grades rise in school and virtually all of them end up going to college. The kids are a cross-section of Madison youth today -- African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and whites. The program isn’t about games and filling in time to keep kids busy, but about academics and learning.

The young people apply for “jobs” on the Free Press, which include working on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings researching topics, interviewing sources and putting together stories on what they’ve discovered. The paper’s founder and executive director, Jim Kramer, and a team of mostly Free Press alumni, require the staffers to seek perfection by writing and rewriting, sometimes seven or eight times. Despite the rigorous standards, there’s a waiting list of kids trying to get in the program.

The Free Press covers topics from geography to health, from education to science. The teen editors, who are selected by their peers, write columns and editorials and often delve into current events to make the paper timely.

If a story makes the paper, the staffer gets a small stipend for his or her efforts.

And kids throughout the Madison area eat it up. More than 30,000 copies are distributed free in the schools and at newsstands around town. Many teachers use the paper in class and Kramer provides them with lesson plans to do so. It’s about kids writing for kids.

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In short, it’s an incredible success story and explains why professors at the university, business leaders around the city and elected officials give up evenings to talk with the kids at the many forums the staff puts together. The program has been hailed not only locally, but nationally, and was even feted at a reception at the White House a few years ago.

But, despite all the success, all is not well at the Free Press. Like so many nonprofits, it has been stung by the agonizing recession, which has cut into grants and gifts that used to flow its way. Kramer, who has received a relatively small salary for all his work, has elected to quit taking it in an effort to help the Free Press make ends meet. The paper may be forced to stop printing and instead do everything on its website to lower the costs, and it might not be able to serve as many kids as it does now.

It would be nothing short of a pity if a program with this track record, a program with a history of moving students from low-income families up the academic scale and putting them in a position to go on to college, would wind up having to close its doors because it didn’t get enough community support.

It’s time for Madison to rally behind this little nonprofit and keep it going -- for the sake of the kids. To learn how you can help out, click on “Support Us” at www.simpsonstreetfreepress.org.

Cap Times editor emeritus Dave Zweifel is a member of the board of the Simpson Street Free Press. dzweifel@madison.com

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