NBC anchor Lester Holt’s successor might be a student broadcasting newscasts right now from Sarah Scott Middle School.
And that student could have Tony Smodilla to thank.
A two-time Sycamore, Smodilla teaches the middle school television media class that was named the top middle school newscast in the country by Channel One News and is CNN’s only middle school affiliate in the United States.
His 7th and 8th grade news hounds at Sarah Scott do not take a regular class in broadcasting. Instead, they meet a few minutes in homeroom each morning, and then on Fridays they produce a seven-10 minute newscast — including the latest headlines, weather and sports — for their classmates.
The rest of the time, these broadcast students take a regular class schedule … but they walk around with their heads held high.
“They are treated special by other students in our school,” Smodilla said, adding that the broadcast students are vetted by their sixth grade teachers before they even get into the program.
Sarah Scott Middle School Principal Scotia Brown agrees with Smodilla, who she calls “Smo.”
“Smo takes pride in developing not only their broadcasting abilities, but their leadership abilities as well,” Brown said. “His students work hard to be professional in front of the camera and leaders in the school.”
To get into the broadcast class, students have to be nominated by their teacher.
“(Their teachers) nominate kids that would be good on camera,” Smodilla said. “Because, you know, reading on camera is a lot different then reading from a book or in class.”
He said students used to reading left to right and down a page have to make the uncomfortable adjustment to read up a page and not look uncomfortable while completing this task.
“It’s a big learning curve to read from a teleprompter,” said Smodilla, referred to as “Mr. Smo” by his students. “As we read, our eyes go down the page. In a teleprompter the lines go up. That’s a big transition, particularly for a 13-year-old kid.”
He said 10 students routinely work to produce a week show, including two anchors and a weather person in front of the camera, two students working the camera, a director, a weather graphics person, a set graphics person, a teleprompter operator and a camera director, the person who is in charge of switching the camera from the smiling face of the anchor to that of the weather person.
Smodilla’s interest in television broadcasting began as an undergraduate at Indiana State, where he received a degree in industrial technology in 1993.
Right out of school, he was hired to teach industrial technology at Cannelton Junior/High School in Tell City, Ind. After just one year there, he was hired to teach electronics at Terre Haute South High School in 1994. But the day before school started, Smodilla was moved to Sarah Scott Middle School as a technology teacher.
Before Smodilla’s arrival at Sarah Scott, the previous technology teacher had set up a small television studio at the school. “It wasn’t much,” Smodilla said. “It was set up in a small room, a kind of closet.”
This is also when Smodilla went back to State to get a master’s in educational technology/library science and audio-visual services.
Then things suddenly got a lot better structure-wise in 1999 when Sarah Scott found itself in a new school building. When they moved in, Smodilla said a television studio was included in the plans, with cables run underground, a director’s room with large glass windows and plenty of room to operate.
Then, Smodilla said local television stations stepped up to the plate, donating old equipment and anything else the middle school students might need.
“Some of the TV stations in the past have donated some equipment as they’ve upgraded or changed their sets,” he said. “The old Fox 38 by the courthouse has given us some stuff. That kind of shut down and was bought out by Channel 2, and they gave us some stuff. Channel 10 has given us some stuff.”
Smodilla said he tries to find ways so his students can be exposed to regular television newscasts and other shows.
“Back then, Fox 38 had an afternoon kids’ show,” he said. “I met the person who was in charge of it, and we would send our news team kids over to the station once a week and they would do a half hour kids’ show.”
In 2003, the Sarah Scott Middle School broadcast program was awarded best newscast in the nation by Channel One News.
Also, Smodilla’s broadcast class has been a CNN affiliate for years, which means they have access to all of the raw footage that CNN shoots. Universities and high schools are usually CNN affiliates, but Smodilla said he believes his class is the only middle school affiliate.
In addition to their weekly newscast, his students also do a video yearbook for each year. The clips are also used sometimes in the newscasts
Additionally, Smodilla produces teaching videos for the schools. As an example, one showed students how to organize their lockers, “a important skill for a middle school student,” he said.
“There are teachers, and there are ‘star’ teachers,” said Brown. “The star teachers are the ones who will put their every effort into giving their best every day to make the ‘magic of education’ happen. Smo is that guy … and we’re thankful for him!”