2020 Lesher Awards for student journalism

More than 70 students representing 11 Contra Costa County high school journalism programs won honors in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition, the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative (CSJI) announced recently.

The awards recognize excellence in news reporting, feature and opinion writing, photography, editorial cartoons, design, and, for the first time, audio journalism. The competition is open to Contra Costa high schools as part of the CC Spin newspaper program and is judged by professional Bay Area journalists.

In place of the traditional awards reception, winners and their entries were announced this year in a new web site, ccspin.net.

“Like every other school-related activity we had to quit in-person interaction, so that meant canceling the annual awards event at the Lesher Center for the Arts,” said CSJI Director Steve O’Donoghue. “But we didn’t cancel the recognition. Students worked hard at journalism, and we wanted to make sure they received their well-earned honors by presenting their work online and to a larger audience.”

“Protester” by Natalie Seiler, Acalanes High School. First place (tie) for photography.

The website also features stories and news content that normally would have been carried in CC Spin, a county-wide print student newspaper published three times each school year. The closure of Bay Area schools in March made distribution of the third edition impractical, O’Donoghue said.

“We hired a webmaster, Casey Nichols, a veteran journalism adviser and nationally recognized teacher and consultant from Rocklin, to set up a new website for us to host student work,”  O’Donoghue said. “We will also add social media as we develop the site.“

CC Spin and the Lesher Awards are a collaboration of CSJI, the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, the Contra Costa County Office of Education, and the Bay City News Foundation.

“The voices and stories of diverse youth are critical to civic dialogue in schools and the broader community,” said Melissa Stafford Jones, Executive Director of the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation. “Our foundation is proud to support high school journalism in Contra Costa County and our congratulations go out to this year’s Lesher Awards honorees.”

Katherine Ann Rowlands, head of the Bay City News Foundation, said, “Reading these stories is so inspiring. Not only is the quality of the work exceptional, but these students are covering issues that really matter and that might not otherwise come to light. These young journalists have bright futures ahead.”

Rowlands said Bay City News Foundation will be cross-publishing some of the stories on its nonprofit website, LocalNewsMatters.org.

The 2020 Lesher Awards consists of 17 categories, including 10 for individual honors, three staff awards (Newspaper Excellence, Website Excellence, and Podcast Excellence), three scholarships, and a CC Spin student editor of the year.

“Basketball” by Lue Van Handel, Acalanes High School. Honorable mention for photography.

For Overall Newspaper Excellence, Dougherty Valley (The Wildcat Tribune) and Acalanes High School (Blueprint) tied for top honors, followed by California High School (The Californian), Monte Vista High School (The Stampede) and Miramonte High School (The Mirador).

For Overall Website Excellence, Dougherty Valley High School (The Wildcat Tribune) won first place with Acalanes second and Monte Vista third.

Overall Podcast Excellence is a new category, and first place went to Dougherty Valley, followed by Acalanes and California.

Among first-place individual winners, Best In-Depth & Investigative Reporting honored Sraavvy Sambara, Vivian Kuang, Sanjana Renganthan, Michael Han, and Sneha Cheenath (Dougherty Valley) for “Teachers Priced Out of San Ramon.”

In News, “Racist Incidents” by Claire Chu and Raquel Montelindo (Monte Vista) tied with “Local Fires and Power Outages Shake the Community” by Emmerson Brown, Stella Heo, and Katrina Ortman (Acalanes).

In Features, there was a tie between “The Rise and Fall: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Jamie Lattin (Acalanes) and “Michael Schneider: A Bohemian Ultrarunner in the Making” by Eva Shen and Harshita Neralla (Dougherty Valley).

Michelle Kuperman (California) won in Sports for “Freshmen Stars Shining Bright on Varsity.”

First in Arts & Entertainment went to “Orange World” by Eva Shen (Dougherty Valley).

Seta Salkhi (Monte Vista), took first place in Personal Column for “OCD: What You Think You Know — And What You Don’t.”

Editorial/Opinion had a tie between “Is Reading a Fading Hobby Among Teens?” by Macie Calvert (Monte Vista) and “Historical Simulations Bring Real-Life Tensions Into Classrooms” by Vivian Kuang and Kavin Kumaravel (Dougherty Valley).

“What’s censorship?” by Kelly Tran, Pinole Valley High School. Third place, editorial cartoon

“Students Struggle to Find Seating for Lunch” by Reese Whipple (Miramonte High School) won in Editorial Cartoon.

First place in Photography  was a tie between “Football,” by Nima Pendar (California) and “Protester,” by Natalie Seiler (Acalanes).

“Falling For These Treats” by Michelle Nguyen (California) won in Page Design.

Schools with second-, third- and honorable mention-winning entries included De Anza High School, Making Waves Academy, Pinole Valley High School, and Richmond High School.

CSJI also announced three scholarships based on stories students wrote for CC Spin’s special project covering the 2020 Census. The recipients were Nicholas Harvey, (California), $1,000; Sneha Cheenath (Dougherty Valley), $500, and Vanessa Macias (Making Waves Academy), $250.

And this year’s CC Spin Student Editor of the Year went to Clara Stevenson (Ygnacio Valley High School). Each high school in the CC Spin program has a student editor who serves as the liaison between the school’s journalism program and the CC Spin program.

CC Spin’s writing coaches and Bay City News Foundation judged the Lesher Awards. For CC Spin: Jim Finefrock, Bruce Koon, Carol Pogash, and Dick Rogers. For Bay City News Foundation: Craig Lazzeretti, Dan McMenamin, and Dan Rosenheim. The team from KQED’s podcast, The Bay, team judged the Excellence in Podcasts category: Devin Katayama, Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and Alan Montecillo

The complete list of the 2020 Lesher Awards winners


FIRST PLACE – TIE: “Racist Incidents: How a viral video on Twitter overshadowed a football game, homework assignment and two letters home” by Chaire Chu and Raquel Montelindo, Monte Vista High School. How the school responded to a series of racist episodes; “Local fires and power outages shake the community” by Emmerson Brown, Stella Heo, and Katrina Ortman, Acalanes High School. How the fires affected a school and its community.
SECOND PLACE: “School installs vape detectors” by Liann Bielicki and Ronnie Gogoi, California High School. The school’s pilot program to catch vapers in the act might not do the job.
THIRD PLACE: “Richmond High teachers introduce new elective classes” by Vivianna Bejarano, Richmond High School. The school’s move to a seven-period day opens opportunities for new electives.
HONORABLE MENTION: “New gun control law” by Angelina Izmaylova and Seta Salkhi, Monte Vista High School. A step toward removing guns from homes where teens might be a danger to themselves or others.

“Falling for treats” by Michelle Nguyen, California High School. First place for newspaper design


FIRST PLACE – TIE: “Michael Schneider: A bohemian ultrarunner in the making” by Eva Shen and Harshita Neralla, Dougherty Valley High School. Profile of a running-crazed senior and aspiring ultrarunner; “The Rise and Fall: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Jamie Lattin, Acalanes High School. Mark Twain’s classic novel falls off the school’s approved reading list.
SECOND PLACE – TIE: “Northgate crowns a Homecoming king” by David Allen, Northgate High School. The school recognizes a special senior with Down syndrome; “Instagram’s influence on teens, promoting toxic femininity” by Jasmine Vazquez, Richmond High School.
THIRD PLACE: “Festivity for All: Student profiles on different holidays” by Binti Sohn, Acalanes High School. Educating readers about non-Christian holidays: a way to learn about diverse cultures.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Seniors organize coding event” by Nick Harvey and Jett Gold, California High School. A coding event that focuses on introducing beginners to the field; “Out with the new, in with the old” by Melissa Solis, Making Waves Academy. An examination of our fascination with nostalgia.


FIRST PLACE: “Freshmen stars shining bright on varsity” by Michelle Kuperman, California High School. Seniors usually get the attention, but this story turned the pattern on its head by giving props to the frosh.
SECOND PLACE: “No freshman football this year” by Ella Johnson, California High School. A trend catches up to Cal High — not enough students sign up for freshman football.
THIRD PLACE: “PE evolves over the years” by Paviter Randhawa, Monte Vista High School. Monte Vista puts the “education” in PE by emphasizing skills and fitness, not competitiveness.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Managing the responsibilities of being a student-athlete” by Adelio Orellana, Richmond High School. It’s not enough to play well. Academics count, too, and that puts pressure on athletes.


FIRST PLACE – TIE: “Is reading a fading hobby among teens?” By Macie Calvert, Monte Vista High School. The school lacks students who read for fun; “Historical simulations bring real-life tensions into classrooms” by Vivian Kuang and Kavin Kumaravel, Dougherty Valley High School. Bringing history to life may make some students uncomfortable.
SECOND PLACE: “Dougherty Valley writes off female authors” by Sneha Cheenath, Dougherty Valley High School. Dougherty’s English classes focus on male writers.
THIRD PLACE: “Hiding in the ivory tower: Desensitization of violence in schools” by Anne Thiselton-Dyer and Zoe Edelman, Acalanes High School. Students have become indifferent to violence around them.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Is saying the n-word contributing to our learning, or just unnecessary?” by Paviter Randhawa, Monte Vista High School. Whether there is a place for it in classrooms is a very controversial topic; “‘O.K. Boomer’ meme fuels intergenerational clash” by Cayley O’Brien, Miramonte High School. The phrase is a defense mechanism on the part of teens, but the different generations have more in common than they think.


FIRST PLACE: “OCD: What you think you know – and what you don’t” by Seta Salkhi, Monte Vista High School. A deep and personal expedition into obsessive-compulsive behavior.
SECOND PLACE – TIE: “The illusion of inclusive marketing by Sraavya Sambara, Dougherty Valley High School. Don’t be fooled: They’re just trying to sell you more stuff; “Why I write” by Jonathan Aldana, Richmond High School. A rich journey into the mind of a writer beginning to find his voice.
THIRD PLACE: “Confronting conflicts of queerness, Mexican culture” by Vanessa Macias, Making Waves Academy. The writer’s identity at the intersection of queer and traditional Mexican culture doesn’t make for a peaceful coexistence.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “We have a voice” by Luke Shalz, Pinole Valley High School. A student faces real-life drama as a school board member; “Life as a diabetic 16-year-old” by Alyssa Wirt, De Anza High School. Balancing a life of fun and work is difficult anyway, but when you’re a teen and a type 1 diabetic, life can be a whole lot tougher.


FIRST PLACE: “Teachers Priced Out of San Ramon” by Sraavya Sambara, Vivian Kuang, Sanjana Ranganathan, Michael Han, and Sneha Cheenath, Dougherty Valley High School. It’s increasingly difficult for Dougherty Valley teachers to find housing nearby.
SECOND PLACE – TIE: “Does Cal High really recycle?” by Jeana Lee and Isaac Oronsky, California High School. Using a recycling bin doesn’t necessarily mean the stuff gets recycled; “AP World cheating scandal highlights academic pressure” by Chloe Van Puffelen and Emily Ma, Monte Vista High School. It’s easy to cheat on AP tests using a cell phone camera.
THIRD PLACE – TIE: “Too Stressed at Dougherty” by Nick Harvey, California High School. More students are transferring to find a less stressful academic life; “Tragic Start to School Year” by Angela Garcia and Alondra Ramirez with contributions from Heidi Carranza, Richmond High School. The school is roiled by death and allegations of sexual misconduct by a teacher.
HONORABLE MENTION: “Self-medication: turning to substances to cope” by Christian Cervantes, Hector Trujillo, Alejandro Duarte and Raul Manzo, Richmond High School. An inquiry into self medicating while still in high school.


FIRST PLACE: “Orange World” by Eva Shen, Dougherty Valley High School. A review of the book of short stories by Karen Russell.
SECOND PLACE: “Joker” by Zack Lara, Acalanes High School. Is the film’s focus on obscene violence socially acceptable?
THIRD PLACE: “Jumanji II” by Seta Salkin, Monte Vista High School. The newest Jumanji film reaches the next level as Danny DeVito and Awkwafina are thrown into the mix.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Frozen 2” by Lauryn Leong, Monte Vista High School. The movie delivers a beautiful message of sisterhood and empowerment; “PC” by Mason Montano, Pinole Valley High School. The legacy of the London-based record label PC Music.


FIRST PLACE – TIE: “Football” by Nima Pendar, California High School. The photo captures a visceral moment of one player straight-arming another; “Protester” by Natalie Seiler, Acalanes High School. The picture shows the anger and determination of a young immigration protester.
SECOND PLACE: “Rally” by Lue Van Handel, Acalanes High School. A photographer turns the camera on another part of the sports action: the stands.
THIRD PLACE: “Scooter” by Teju Anand, Dougherty Valley High School. A photo captures a critical moment in a skateboard maneuver.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Roller Skater” by Logan Visola, California High School. A roller skater in a colorful costume balances toe-and-heel; “Basketball” by Lue Van Handel, Acalanes High School. A photo captures the action near the rim.


FIRST PLACE: “Falling for these treats” by Michelle Nguyen, California High School. A tasty layout of autumn treats at restaurants, shops and stores nearby.
SECOND PLACE: “San Ramon Housing Crisis Prices Teachers Out” by Sarah Kim, Anika Garg, and Riya Bindlish, Dougherty Valley High School. The design helped readers navigate a long and detailed story by incorporating info graphics and an attractive look.
THIRD PLACE: “District Teachers Strike Averted” by Emmy Burrus and Christine Oh, California High School.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “How to Register to Vote” by Sydney Christensen, Acalanes High School. A helpful guide for students registering to vote; “California Top 10 Songs of the Decade” by Michelle Nguyen, Carol Chen and Rebecca Newman, California High School.  Looking back at students’ favorite music.


FIRST PLACE: “Students Struggle to Find Seating for Lunch” by Reese Whipple, Miramonte High School. It’s a battle zone in the quad when it comes to grabbing a table.
SECOND PLACE: “Teens navigating relationships and love through technology” by Citlaly Estrada, Richmond High School. Technology advances but romance persists.
THIRD PLACE – TIE: “Only PG&E can stop wildfires” by Ethan Walker, Acalanes High School. A contemporary take on the old saying; “What’s censorship?” by Kelly Tran, Pinole Valley High School. By censoring political expression, did the National Archive commit political expression?


FIRST PLACE – TIE: Acalanes High School and Dougherty Valley High School
SECOND PLACE: California High School
THIRD PLACE: Monte Vista High School
HONORABLE MENTION: Miramonte High School


FIRST PLACE: Dougherty Valley High School
SECOND PLACE: Acalanes High School
THIRD PLACE: Monte Vista High School

Clara Stevenson, Ygnacio Valley High School. CC Spin Student Editor of the Year


FIRST PLACE: Dougherty Valley High School, “Wildcat: Rapid Reviews #1”
SECOND PLACE: Acalanes High School, “Double NPR, Episode 2: The Electoral College”
THIRD PLACE: California High School, “Bear With Us: Ghost of Homecoming Past”


FIRST PLACE: Nicholas Harvey, California High School ($1,000)
SECOND PLACE: Sacha Cheenath, Dougherty Valley High School ($500)
THIRD PLACE: Vanessa Macias, Making Waves Academy ($250)


Clara Stevenson, Ygnacio Valley High School

To view the winning entries online go to CCSpin.net, The Student News Site of the California Scholastic Journalism Initiative.

The mission of California Scholastic Journalism Initiative’s CC Spin program is to assist Contra Costa County high schools in training students to better understand and appreciate the role of a free press in our democratic system, the ethics and appropriate behaviors of journalists, and to protect and value the First Amendment in our society. Our goal is a student newspaper in every Contra Costa County high school that is a voice for student concerns and measures up to the highest journalistic standards.