Teacher at Townsend Harris High in Flushing wins award for building student interest in communications

Photo courtesy of Stetson Doggett/Ithaca College

A teacher from one of Queens’ most prestigious high schools earned recognition for his commitment to sparking students’ passion in media communications.

Brian Sweeney, an English teacher at Townsend Harris High School, received the 2018 S’Park Media Mentor Award Oct. 8 from the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.

Sweeney met the advisors and managers of the Park School’s own nationally acclaimed student media outlets, and learned about the Park Scholar Program, which provides full cost of attendance scholarships for communications students.

“It was really special. I think I felt more honored because of the other people I was with. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re being honored for and then you get there and these are people from different places in the country..being able to talk and interact with them,” said Sweeney. “They were all really impressive and taught me a lot of things so it was more the experience that felt like a real honor.”

Sweeney is the advisor of Townsend Harris High School’s student newspaper, The Classic.

The Classic’s coverage of calls for the resignation of the high school’s interim principal in 2016 and 2017 was the basis of stories in The New York Times, ABC News, CBS, Teen Vogue and QNS. Sweeney and his students received the 2017 Courage in Student Journalism Award from the Student Press Law Center.

“I think my students were instrumental in getting the award, so I don’t think it was just out of the blue,” said Sweeney. “I think that there were one or two of them that were familiar with it and wrote things that caught the eye of the program at Ithaca that gives the award. Every year that we’ve done the newspaper, we get just a group of kids that remain in touch and keep up with what we’re doing. They really care about the legacy of the newspaper.”

According to Sweeney, he encourages his students who are interested in media communications to apply for opportunities.

“We live in New York City and there’s tons of things that they can take advantage of by getting involved in, or just now with viewing the journalism that they do for our school as not some kind of kid journalism,” said Sweeney.

Townsend Harris High School protects free speech as opposed to journalism teachers in other school’s who might be punished for it, Sweeney added.

“From day one when they hired me, they made it clear that the job I had was to always protect the newspaper students in there exercising the first amendment,” said Sweeney. It’s definitely humbling to get an award like this but you do feel you have a bit of a leg up because you come  from a school like that where they not only allow it but encourage it.”

Sweeney added, “It creates this atmosphere of real democratic participation.”

Diane Gayeski, dean of the Park School, said each of their awardees inspires high school students to see media as powerful tools to shape the society that they will inherit, and instill a culture of excellence in their cohorts.

“Over the years, the mentors have become a wonderful pipeline for some of our most talented students, and we appreciate the opportunity to forge relationships with students who may not otherwise have heard of Ithaca College or thought that a Park School degree could be in their futures,” said Gayeski.

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