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Rethinking the Yearbook

Should every student get 'equal time' in their high school yearbook?

By Winnie Hu

The yearbook for Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in New Jersey has traditionally doubled as an unofficial social register: Students closely study the index of names in the back and count how many times they appear. "If you're more popular, you're featured more; if you're not, you're barely seen," says Quentin Blackwell, 17, a co-captain of the football team who appeared five times last year. "It shows your status, where you are on the totem pole of high school."

Not anymore. This year, an editor is tracking how often each of the school's 1,400 students appears in the 325-page yearbook. The goal is for every student to appear twice, in candid photos or feature stories, regardless of whether he or she is the senior class president, the yearbook editor's best friend, or the student who comes late and leaves early.

"Everyone deserves to be remembered," says Lauren Williams, 17, a senior on the yearbook staff. "Whether they're a hugely popular kid or just in their own little group, they matter to someone."

Scotch Plains-Fanwood is one of many schools across the country remaking a tradition that has been criticized for reinforcing a hierarchy based on popularity. Many yearbook editors say they're trying to broaden their coverage and make sure everyone gets in.

One-Time-Per-Person Rule

At North Brunswick Township High School, also in New Jersey, the yearbook staff tracks down students who miss their official portrait sittings. Some large schools, like William R. Boone High School in Orlando, Florida, with 3,000 students, try to enforce a one-time-per-person rule for candid photos and quotations. And the 32 students on the yearbook staff at Whitney High School in Rocklin, California, use e-mail, surveys, and a Facebook page to find out about people and events they might not otherwise cover.

But some question whether yearbooks are going too far in trying to give everyone equal coverage, regardless of how much—or how little—a student contributes to school life.

"It's unfair to suggest that everyone should get equal time when they haven't put in equal time," says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

"Having everyone get equal time is the equivalent of everyone gets a trophy, or we're not going to keep score, or even if we do, everyone's trophy is the same size. There's no resemblance to real life."

Amy Rutkowski, a teacher at Scotch Plains-Fanwood and adviser for the yearbook, recently flipped through her own senior yearbook—she is a 1995 graduate of the school—and was disappointed to find herself in so few pictures.

"The football players were there, and the cheerleaders next to them," she says. "And there was me—the band geek—in the corner, literally, if I even made it that year."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 31, 2011)