In Chicago, online student journalism hangs in the balance
Nov. 2, 2021
For the past 12 years, Student Newspapers Online, or SNO, has been a mainstay, if not a necessity, in the world of student journalism. Providing glossy websites, instant publication, in-depth analytics, and most importantly, education since their founding in 2008. Their service is not based on production, but rather platform. Many journalism programs, from Northwestern and the University of Illinois to Jones College Prep and The Champion itself, along with schools in every other state, count themselves as customers.
As SNO co-founder Tom Hutchinson puts it, SNO provides a space that allows students and advisors to “do their thing.”
Unfortunately, The Champion’s 12-year connection with this small, yet integral, service is tenuous at the moment — due to the constraints of CPS’s interpretation of the Student Online Personal Protection Act (SOPPA). A dense cluster of unpaid SNO invoices, including from Lane, blot the Chicago area.
SNO, however, collects significantly less information than some of the larger companies CPS has quickly approved for use by teachers and students in other subjects.
Students can give their first name, last name, and email address to log into and publish on SNO, though email is only used for password recovery. The password is not required to be the student’s actual information, just a placeholder to keep an account. The only disclosure of specific personal information is voluntary, when a student journalist publishes an article with their name on it for their school and general public to read — and preserve for the future.
However, some much larger companies who have already been accepted into the SOPPA process and have been quickly approved, per the CPS SOPPA approval database, seem to be much more intrusive when it comes to the procurement of personal information of CPS students, many of whom are minors.
Per a Champion review of approved SOPPA contracts, Renaissance Learning, a “learning analytics and adaptive assessment” software, requires the disclosure of student gender, district ID, last name, first name, age, email, teacher, homeroom, student language information and what they call “student observation data.”
This is in stark contrast to the words of CPS Director of Information Security Craig Youngberg, who said when interviewed by The Champion for a prior story that characteristics like these should not be part of the data disclosed to companies. “If you’re a boy or a girl, it shouldn’t matter how you learn math. We see no reason for them to have that information,” Youngberg said last month.
One of the programs under the Renaissance umbrella that requires gender — MyIGDIs — is labelled as an analytic tool for teachers developing numerical and literacy skills in preschool students.
MyIGDIs and all of the many other Renaissance programs are marked as “approved for use” on the student database, including Schoolzilla, a school analytics program which tracks academic growth absences, college readiness and other characteristics. The contract also hints that for all Renaissance programs, “in-product reports can be filtered to reflect specific demographics… to provide that information in the dashboard display to administrators.”
Around June, SNO received an email from CPS detailing the specifics of what would have to be accomplished in order to remain approved as an educational service vendor under the new SOPPA process.
To do so, Hutchinson entered CPS’s new extensive RFQ (Request For Qualification) process, filling out the same form that other companies such as Apple, Adobe and others had to fill out — massive companies that are a far cry from the 7-person outfit in Minnesota. Much of it did not even apply to SNO, according to Hutchinson.
“I didn’t have to fill that much paperwork out for a mortgage,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said that he feels he is at a disadvantage because of SNO’s size. Whereas tech giants who are applying into the SOPPA process have legal teams to parse the bureaucratic minutiae — and contend with CPS’s own army of lawyers — Hutchinson has done much of the work himself, along with some help from LegalZoom.
He also claimed that, compared to the CPS process, the boilerplate SOPPA forms he had to fill out for schools in the rest of the state were much less laborious, like a 12-page packet he signed for McHenry County School District. It still accomplished the same goal: a binding promise not to share the personal information of students. He also made it clear that prior to this, he never shared or sold students’ digital information.
No other districts that he knows of, said Hutchinson, have had to cancel their relationship with SNO.
At least twice, Hutchinson reached out to the CPS support system to outline his qualms with the one-size fits all process and paperwork.
“The answer I always got back was you don’t have a choice, and that this is the only way you can work with Chicago area schools,” Hutchinson said.
He complied, and two months later, on Aug. 27, he was abruptly rejected from entering the SOPPA process, let alone being able to keep servicing CPS newspapers in the first place. Because SNO’s vendor identification was deleted, Student Newspapers Online was erased from CPS databases, meaning student journalists have not been able to check the status of the website they need on the CPS website that informs students and teachers whether a site is approved for use, in the process of negotiating or has been rejected.
After speaking with what he said were cooperative officials, Hutchinson learned that the fact that his site served the needs of college, not just K-12 journalists, was behind much of the stonewalling.
“[The CPS official] said that, because of that fact, this wasn’t appropriate for us (SNO.)”
“What do I do now?” Hutchinson asked him.
The official, Hutchinson said, said they did not know a course of action for him to take, before assuring the SNO co-founder that he would get back to him with more help.
Hutchinson never heard back.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated that Renaissance Learning is a publicly traded company. Renaissance stopped being publicly traded in 2011.