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Thomas Jefferson students help get the word out with public relations class

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:41 p.m.
Members of Thomas Jefferson High School’s introduction to public relations class, from left, Alexis Dengler, Brianna Bowman and Alanna Stosic, laugh as they discuss their last project of the semester: planning their own wedding with a $30,000 budget. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Members of Thomas Jefferson High School’s introduction to public relations class in October make “popcorn hands” to sell in an effort to raise money for the prom committee and raise awareness for the upcoming Zombie Run. File photo
Members of Thomas Jefferson High School’s introduction to public relations class, from left, Alexis Dengler, Brianna Bowman and Alanna Stosic, laugh as they discuss their last project of the semester: planning their own wedding with a $30,000 budget. Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record

Zombies - with "blood" dripping down their necks and bite marks hardened on their cheeks - crept through the hallways of Thomas Jefferson High School for a day.

Flashy posters lined the green blocked walls of the school and early-morning television commercials - aired during the daily announcements on TJTV - helped broadcast information about upcoming events at Thomas Jefferson.

The 12 members of this year's Thomas Jefferson High School's "introduction to public relations" class found creative ways to promote activities and increase student and community participation at school events.

They used social media, created press releases for local news outlets and did just about anything they could think of - from a flash mob at a school pep assembly to a videotaped fashion show - to share information and spark excitement about upcoming events.

Their ideas were new and fresh and something those organizing the events said they would never have thought of themselves. The class, also, took the pressure of publicizing school events away from other teachers and club organizers.

"It was truly wonderful," said Thomas Jefferson High School English teacher and prom committee advisor Gwenna Cokley, who had the "introduction to public relations class" do publicity for several events. "They took the hardest part of doing these fundraisers - which is getting the word out - and that let me focus on organizing them and raising the money."

The "introduction to public relations" class, taught as "group communications" for several years, was re-purposed for the 2012-13 school year, said teacher Lauren Geary.

With a double major from Penn State University in secondary English education and public relations/advertising, Geary said she sought a way to make use of both of her degrees and formulate a class at Thomas Jefferson that would help prepare students interested in public relations.

The "group communications" class had no set curriculum. So, Geary used her background - having done internships at Pittsburgh and California public relations firms - to draft a course that would teach students the basics of public relations, how to write fact sheets, press releases, pitch letters, feature stories and public service announcements and plan events.

Geary, who had planned to go into the public relations field herself - until she "completely fell in love with the classroom" during a student teaching assignment - used college textbooks to draft the coursework for Thomas Jefferson, she said.

The class got the approval of high school administrators and debuted this fall as a semester-long class, with a project centered focus.

The class was set up like a public relations firm with teachers and school groups as their clients, Geary said.

"I wanted to make this real world applicable," she said.

Clients included the prom committee, where the public relations class handled publicity for the "Zombie Run" and the second annual upscale recycling event, "Impress for Le$." The students also handled publicity - and some event planning - for the fall play, benefiting the high school drama club; "Dancing with the Athletes," benefiting student council; and the National Honor Society inductions.

"It was really tough," said Thomas Jefferson senior Casey Chuderewicz, 18. "We had to get ideas of what high school students like - aside from ourselves - and think how they think." Their ideas had to make others excited about an event - not always an easy task, as they found out.

"I didn't realize how hard it was to get the TJ populous excited about something," said Thomas Jefferson senior Christina Meyer, 18.

Still, they were able to come up with creative ideas that had students talking about each event - and in, some cases, increased attendance at the program, organizers said.

"I don't think there was one person in the school that didn't know about the Zombie Run," said Thomas Jefferson senior Alexis Dengler, 18.

The class also helped students decide if they wanted to go into the public relations field. Some had taken the class because they were interested in the subject. Others, like Meyer, had Geary for Advanced Placement English and wanted to learn more from her.

Meyer, who plans to attend Clarion University next fall and major in finance, now is considering a career in public relations or advertising.

Thomas Jefferson senior Brianna Bowman, 17, already planned to go into public relations in college. She was inspired by her mother, who used to do promotions for events in college.

The class, Bowman said, helped to prepare her for college.

"It was like a preview, so you know what you're in for in college," she said.

The assignments required the students to set up meetings with their principal, teachers and business leaders in the area - a learning experience for the high school seniors.

"We were talking with someone in a professional manner," said Thomas Jefferson senior Alanna Stosic, 17, noting this was the first time she had to do something like this for a high school assignment.

The class also was more than public relations. It included event planning and the preparation of their own weddings, on a $30,000 budget - a project that was student initiated, inspired by Geary's own impending nuptials.

That was one of the most challenging assignments, the students said. And they plan to keep their wedding planners until they get married, simply to see how their style changes.

Thomas Jefferson teachers - or the clients - completed an evaluation form, rating the student's promotional work this semester. They all gave the class good rating, Geary said.

"Every year, during the play, I've got 10,000 things to worry about and publicity sort of falls by the way side until the last minute, then I panic," said Thomas Jefferson English and theater teacher and fall play director Julie Tipton. "This year, I didn't have to."

The promotions were beneficial, Tipton said, and the fall play this year had a 5 percent increase in attendance.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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