On March 13, when the coronavirus hit Philly, students went home for what they thought would be two weeks of social isolation. That was followed by a series of extensions until finally, the District announced that in-person learning was off for the rest of the year.
That left seniors mourning the loss of their final days as high schoolers and all of the milestones they were missing out on. Other students wondered when they’d see their friends again, how they were supposed to manage virtual school, or accessing the supplies and support that makes their lives easier.
Just over half of Philly’s students started participating in online classes, something Aden Gonzales, a junior at Masterman High School, says added to the confusion. “There were a few weeks where everything was kind of up in the air,”Gonzales says.
In the midst of these closures, many students felt the need to communicate with one another—but there were few ways for them to do so. Most students only know students at the school they attend and, outside of social media, which tends to hew closely to students’ friend groups, there’s no district-wide channel for students to communicate.
To help solve this problem, Gonzales and students from several other Philly schools created The Bullhorn, a citywide, student0run, online independent newspaper for the city’s high schoolers. The initial group of students met virtually for the first time on March 22, just a week after the School District of Philadelphia’s initial closures. Their website went live on May 1.
“People don’t listen to students that often,” Gonzales says. “We’re calling out the district and we’re calling out the faults in the city from a student’s point of view.”
Named The Bullhorn after the megaphones often used by protestors, the paper sought to give students a place where they could call out the district and where they could communicate directly with one another during times of crisis.
“People don’t listen to students that often.”
“We’re calling out the district and we’re calling out the faults in the city from a student’s point of view,” Gonzales says.
In early April, calls started circulating on social media looking for students in Philadelphia’s public schools who would be interested in participating.
Since their website went live on May 1, they’ve published articles on how students can access menstrual products during the pandemic, how to access A.P exams remotely and how the School District works.
They’ve also highlighted the experiences of students who are essential workers and have written about how the city’s homeless population is affected by the pandemic.
In addition to their coverage of Covid-19, The Bullhorn has a Senior Spotlight section on their site to highlight the accomplishments of Philly’s high school seniors and to celebrate them even as the pandemic has led to the cancellation of traditional graduation milestones, such as commencement and prom.
“The newspaper is giving seniors some recognition,” says Cyniah Drew, a sophomore at Parkway Center City High School and an editor for The Bullhorn. Drew has been involved with the paper from its initial meetings in March. “Even though your senior year was ruined, you know, we see you.”
While the paper has served as a place where students can connect with one another and share information during Covid-19, it wasn’t born out of the pandemic.
The idea for the paper came from the Masterman chapter of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) during the fall of 2019. The group was discussing its plans for the rest of the year when Gonzales, a member of PSU, realized that there was no way for students across the district to communicate with one another outside of talking to their friends on social media.
Even though there was not a lot of communication between schools, Gonzales and the other editors of The Bullhorn realized that public school students in Philly face many of the same issues. The District’s student to guidance counselor ratio is 394 to 1 and many of the city’s schools are in poor condition—last fall the district found that approximately 80 percent of their schools contained asbestos.
“We all go through a lot of the same things,” Gonzales says. “All of us go to schools that are in not good conditions, with large class sizes and school lunches that are inedible.”
Gonzales came up with the idea for The Bullhorn as a proposal for PSU, but since then the newspaper has split from the group so that it can function as an independent newspaper. Currently, 30 students from 14 different public schools are participating in The Bullhorn and 504 people follow its Instagram account The site has been visited 2,919 times since they launched it and new students continue to join the paper’s staff all the time.
Connecting students to make a change.
“It sounded like a great idea and a good way to connect students from different Philadelphia schools,” says Chaundra Furin-Campbell, a sophomore at Central High School, who joined the paper in April. “Students at different schools often don’t know what’s going on at others. A citywide newspaper can not only inform students of things that they may not have heard about, but it can also focus on issues concerning the city as a whole that may not be highlighted in school papers.”
“I want the newspaper to become a platform where students can express their opinions, talk about systematic problems, problems in our day to day lives, as well as connect Philadelphia public school students across the district to make a change,” says Frimpong.
For Patricia Frimpong, a freshman at Girls High who became an editor for the paper in late April, the paper has provided an outlet for students to express their views without worrying about being silenced by the district.
Student newspapers at individual schools often have to go through layers of editorial review before publication either by teachers who are advising the group or by the school’s principals. As an independent newspaper, The Bullhorn isn’t subjected to this same level of scrutiny. Only the student editors review works before they’re published.
“The Bullhorn allows students to speak up about issues that need to be addressed without the fear of being silenced,” Frimpong says. “I want the newspaper to become a platform where students can express their opinions, talk about systematic problems, problems in our day to day lives, as well as connect Philadelphia public school students across the district to make a change.”
The Bullhorn isn’t a place for students to simply commiserate over shared experiences, however. The editors want to use the paper to address inequality and share resources amongst Philly’s schools.
Their website includes a a section that acts as a virtual guidance counselor to students by offering information on college, gap years, and going directly into the workforce post-graduation. It also includes advice for first generation college students, career planning and more opportunities that are available to all Philly students.
“Schools vary a lot from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood, and none of us have all of the resources that we need to, like, fully thrive,” Gonzales says.
The plan is to keep publishing articles online throughout summer.
And they are currently working on raising money and applying for grants so that the paper can produce print editions to distribute to Philly’s public schools in the fall. These funds are necessary because the editors of The Bullhorn want to keep the paper free for students to access and independent from the district.
“It really is a big accomplishment to say that a group of students ran a newspaper with no help from adults, that we did it ourselves,” Drew says.
They also plan to start hosting virtual events for students. On June 5, they hosted Philly Talents for Peace, a virtual talent show which featured testimonials from public school students about how gun violence in the city has affected their lives and their families. As students performed, photographs of students protesting during 2018’s March for Our Lives event in Philly and from other cities flashed across the screen.
During the show, students also spoke about George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests in Philly and the connection between gun violence and police violence. The event raised $395 for Moms Bonded by Grief, a local support group for mothers who have lost a child to gun violence.
Hosting these events is part of The Bullhorn’s mission to become a resource for students to express their views on a number of issues. “We want to become more than just a newspaper,” Gonzales says. “We all go through the same things and we’re so much stronger when we all work together to accomplish the same goals.”Photo by Fibonacci Blue / Flickr