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School & Community News

A look back at the beginning with HNW’s co-founder
March 15, 2024

Susan Spencer was a second-grade teacher in Upper Darby, Pa., when she and a student’s parent, Marian Uhlman, struck up a conversation about children’s health. Susan was an avid New York Times reader and Marian was a health reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer

Marian’s daughter Dana suggested the two of them start a newspaper focused on health.

“That’s how it started,” Susan said recently. In the fall of 2003, with a staff of fifth-grade students, the first edition of the Hillcrest Healthy Times was distributed throughout the school. “We had no idea how it would expand.”

Twenty years later, Healthy NewsWorks works with 1,650 elementary and middle school students in 18 schools in Philadelphia, Norristown, Pa., and Camden, N.J. The student reporters produce not only newspapers for their school communities, but also magazines and videos and other digital content. Interview subjects have ranged from school nurses and physical education teachers to NFL players, an acting surgeon general, and a NASA astronaut. 

“[Marian] has an amazing way to reach out to the right people, and it’s astounding to me some of the people the kids have interviewed,” Susan said. “In this day and age, the focus on these topics at the school level, which hopefully then will continue into adult life, I think is wonderful.”

Susan and Marian’s hope for the initial program was to help both students and families “make good choices with health and being informed.” In addition, they wanted to guide and assist students with their technical writing skills and the basics of journalism: correctly vetting sources, conducting interviews, editing, and adhering to journalistic integrity. 

In doing all of these things, the students within the Healthy NewsWorks program gained credibility through their own hard work. 

“As a teacher—kindergarten, no matter what grade I taught—I always had high expectations,” Susan said. “And that always works with students if you are able to support them.”

The two professionals, teacher and reporter, knew they could provide the support. But they had another requirement. “If we were going to do this, this was going to be a newspaper,” Susan said. “There were going to be no shortcuts. It wasn’t going to be dummied down.”

“Marian did a lot of the editing and talking about getting the facts right,” Susan said. “Some of the students chose not to continue because they really didn’t realize it was going to be that much work.”  

Susan made it part of her mission from the outset to include all grades in the K–5 school and to implement an array of activities to engage them. “We ended up doing simple puzzles with food words for the younger children, and then we would have some of the staff of the newspaper go down to kindergarten and first-grade classes and read the newspaper to the kids.” 

Students also were involved in taste-testings, using recipes they could take home to try and then make for class. “It was very hands-on,” Susan said.  

After four decades of teaching children all over the world, Susan is now retired. She remains in awe of just how much of an impact Healthy NewsWorks has made in the lives of children and their families, including many who are immigrants. ”I just remember being astounded at these young students beaming because this was their story that they had written. The one thing that did strike me were so many of the immigrant families … they were just beyond proud of their child.”

Susan is grateful for the memories and time spent building Healthy NewsWorks toward the success it is today.  

“There would be that one or two students that you just thought they were not getting [it]. Then, all of a sudden, they’re walking taller in the hallways and they feel so much better about themselves because they found something that they were good at,” Susan said. “And that’s priceless.” 

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Since 2003, Healthy NewsWorks has been empowering elementary and middle school students to become researchers, writers, and confident communicators who advance health understanding and literacy through their factual publications and digital media.

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