Analyzing the district budget and asking peers about drug use might not be the keys to high school popularity, but covering those topics and more helped Francis Howell student publications achieve national recognition. 

Both Francis Howell and Central high schools received awards for their student publications for the 2011-12 school year.

FHC's Central Focus earned the George H. Gallup Award from the Quill and Scroll International Honor Society, the organization's highest honor. FHHS's newspaper, called Spotlight, was named a finalist in the National Scholastic Press Association's Pacemaker contest, which recognizes excellence in high school and collegiate journalism, and the Howelltonian yearbook received its fifth All-American rating from the National Scholastic Press Association. 

"I don't ever expect to win at those things, but I wasn't surprised. Last year was one of the strongest groups of students I've had in my eight years here," said Matthew Schott, FHC publications adviser. 

At a time when many print publications are struggling to stay out of the red, journalism programs are taking off at Francis Howell high schools. In addition to putting out a monthly paper or magazine, Francis Howell, North and Central high schools operate websites that students update daily with original stories and content. Francis Howell's publications are produced in classes, and students are graded on their work. 

"Students learn to write across all platforms. All of the the stories we do get changed into a different variety or format," said Michele Dunaway, FHHS publications adviser who was named the 2012 High School Journalism Teacher of the Year by the Missouri Interscholastic Press Association.

Often, students' stories that go into the paper also end up in the school's yearbook and on the web. Each medium requires a different voice and different depth, broadening students' writing experience. Schott said working on publications is in line with many of the Common Core State Standards, educational guidelines adopted by Missouri and most states in 2010. 

"Common Core focuses on creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. That's exactly what those classes are living and breathing every single day," he said. 

Besides their academic value, publications work also builds thick skin, said Howelltonian and Spotlight editor Emily Phelps, a senior at FHHS.

"Out of my four years of high school, I have learned more real-life applications out of this class than any other," she said. "You learn to deal with really touchy situations and learn to deal with people whether they're angry or in a tough spot. You know you need to cover it, and cover it in such a way as to not step on anyone's toes." 

This isn't the first year Francis Howell publications have been recognized. All three high schools received NSPA honors in years past. While the publications programs have a record of excellence, teachers said it's not always the first course on students' wish lists. At FHHS, the yearbook, newspaper and news website are produced by 17 students. Schott said his yearbook class has about 25 students and his newspaper class about 30. The courses, which require heavy writing, research and time spent outside of class, cannot be taken for advanced credit. 

"My retention rate is about 98 percent," Dunaway said. "It's not like kids hate it and are leaving, they are just trying to fit in so many things to the schedules. If they want to graduate cum laude, they have to take a fourth credit of history, and that take up an elective spot."