Woodstown’s Communications Academy opens doors to communications careers

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

Students in Woodstown High School’s Communications Academy, a magnet program that attracts students throughout Salem County, are exploring careers in communications through a mix of hands-on courses and creative assignments. These include producing a daily television show, a podcast and projects that see them holding press conferences exploring the death of Julius Caesar or analyzing Holden Caulfield’s mental health issues after reading The Catcher in the Rye.  

The academy is a collaboration between the Salem County Vocational Technical Schools and Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District, as well as regional experts and advisers in the field of communications. The goal of the program is to provide students with a comprehensive background in audio, visual, written and oral communications.  

In addition, students can earn college credits at no cost to them through an agreement with Salem Community College.  

“I think this is a great opportunity for kids to showcase themselves, their school and their abilities,” says Jim Dementri, a graduate of Rowan University’s Communications Radio/TV/Film program, and one of two primary instructors in the program.  

Dementri, whose resume includes working on radio stations and time spent as an on-air sports broadcaster, music director and DJ, guides students through video production and radio broadcasting and production.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, media and communications jobs will increase by 6% from 2021 to 2031, although certain careers, particularly in marketing and management, will likely increase at a faster pace.  

“We’re preparing students for the kinds of careers they can pursue in media and communications,” says Dementri. “Everything from video editor, producer, scriptwriter, news writer, camera operator, director, production assistant, audio broadcaster, audio technician, audio producer, broadcast journalist, audio visual specialist, news anchor, podcaster, content creator, social media manager, public relations specialist and journalist.” 

The hands-on experience lets students create everything from screenplays to podcasts to videos.

Four years of intense learning 

Students in ninth grade are introduced to communications and these potential careers. They begin working on the preproduction process and how to develop a story. Eventually, they move into production and discuss setting up shots, lighting and cameras. They learn video editing using platforms such as WeVideo. As they build their skills, they move to the industry standard Adobe Premiere Pro editing software as well as Audition.  

In 10th grade, students learn more about audio editing, commercial writing, multitrack audio production, vocal development and public speaking skills. These students are responsible for the morning announcements over the school’s PA system four days a week.  

“Every skill that they learn here they can use in their personal or professional lives, regardless of what careers they choose,” Dementri says. “You’re more valuable in a job if you’re able to perform many skills.”  

It’s not only careers in media that require strong communications skills. Dementri points out that in careers such as real estate, people are producing videos, taking photos and making commercials to promote the homes they are hoping to sell.  

In 11th grade, students take two periods with Dementri or they take one of his classes and a communications-related elective. The focus is on broadcast communications and students work on the monthly news magazine show, “Woodstown in Focus,” which is available to students and staff in and out of school on the YouTube channel. 

Seniors can opt to take two periods of communications classes or a single period paired with an independent study program. The seniors are also responsible for a weekly video news and announcements show called Woodstown Today. 

They learn about commercials, PSAs and make promotional videos for school teams or clubs. Students also learn how to make documentaries, and some of the topics explore aspects of their town or the school.  

One of the classes students can take is Fiction and Film. In this course they analyze film adaptations. They also learn how to critique films. By breaking down how a film is made and the choices that the creators made, students find that they understand the process better, even as they see their enjoyment of the film change.  

“Students have told us, ‘You’re taking the fun out of the movie,’” Dementri laughs. “But we’re teaching them to be better consumers. It’s very important to think and look critically at all media you consume.”  

Other electives include advertising, public relations, journalism and creative writing. 

Bringing the world to the students 

Teachers in the program work with others outside the academy to provide additional resources and experiences to students. They work with the administration to get their messages out to the school and public. “Let’s Talk Woodstown” is the superintendent’s show with a student host. They also produce a video to welcome families to Back to School Night. Students livestream the school’s annual volleyball tournament. Not only do they run the production, but they also provide play-by-play coverage and analysis. 

“Students get excited, and they’re taking off in their own directions,” Dementri says. “They’re doing interviews, working on a horror scene and experimenting with Photoshop and video editing programs. We’ve had students enter their films in Rowan University’s film festival. 

“We also participate in the 10 Day Film Challenge, as well as student videos nominated for a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Mid-Atlantic Student Production Awards,” Dementri says. “We even turned a fun, team building holiday activity of building gingerbread houses into a full-on Food Network-style contest called Gingerbread Wars. We incorporated the entire senior class as the production crew of videographers, assistant producers, editors, production assistants and contestants.” 

Woodstown High School students learn about a variety of careers in communications.

Livestreaming school events 

One of the newer projects for students is livestreaming events at the school, particularly sports, for the greater community.  

“It took an initial investment of about $8,000 in livestream equipment, but we’ve been able to do so much with that money,” Dementri says.  

Since 2021, the students have been livestreaming graduation, enabling more people to participate, particularly during the height of the pandemic. Students who work on livestreaming after-school events not only earn practical experience, but they are paid minimum wage for their labor.  

“We have a budget of $1,000 to pay students for these after-school activities,” Dementri says. “It’s important for them to be compensated for their time and skill, it’s great for their resumes, and it also shows them to value the work they are doing.”  

A valuable investment in students’ futures 

The program, which began more than 25 years ago, has seen alumni go on to careers in communications that include editing, filmmaking, public relations, journalism and much more.  

“Salem County Vo-Tech and Woodstown High School have invested in the technology we need to run this program,” Dementri says. “That includes cameras, tripods, microphones, computers and programs like the Adobe suite, but it’s really paying off in terms of giving students the skills and confidence to show what they’ve learned.” 

Physical upgrades to the classroom, studio and media center are making the program even more like what students will encounter in media careers. These upgrades include a new news desk, a control room for production, new computer desks, recording booths and storage. 

“I like to see the students’ results,” Dementri adds. “When they give me their finished product, I’m proud of them.”  

View some of the students’ work on the Woodstown High School Communications Academy YouTube page at youtube.com/c/WHSTV1 and follow them on Instagram using @whscommacad. 

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org

Student-driven podcast wins grant 

For the 2023-24 school year, Woodstown High School teacher Jim Dementri was awarded an NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Grant for Excellence in Education. With the $9,000 from the grant, Dementri ran “Discussing Teen Issues – a Podcast” to provide students with an outlet to discuss the issues that matter most to them, from harassment and bullying to self-esteem to LGBTQIA+ to mental health.  

Apply for an NJEA Hipp Grant  

Grants from the NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education help educators bring creative ideas to life. The only foundation of its kind in New Jersey, the Hipp Foundation supports initiatives to promote great ideas—whether they come from teachers, secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria staff or any other member in the school community.   

More than $2.3 million in grants for innovative educational projects that represent a bold, fresh approach by public school employees has already been awarded. Apply for a Hipp grant and bring your innovative ideas to life. The annual deadline is March 1 each year. The portal will open on July 1, 2024 for the coming year. Grants range from $500 to $10,000.   

Learn more at njea.org/hipp.