September 1, 2011 / Staff Management

New adviser, staff at O’Bryant turn around yearbook in one year

Written by Evan Blackwell, CJE

Betsy Lazo still remembers the moment during her job interview with the John D. O’Bryant School in Roxbury, Mass., when she brought up the idea of getting involved with the yearbook.

For Lazo – an English teacher with no previous experience as an adviser – the yearbook was a keepsake to be cherished, something she learned during her early high school years at Florida’s William R. Boone High School. Unfortunately, the recent tale of the yearbook at O’Bryant had been a different story.

“Everyone in the room sort of looked at me, and then they kind of laughed. They asked, ‘Why would you want to do that?’” said Lazo. “(Yearbook) had become a burden that nobody wanted to deal with.”

With the job of yearbook adviser already taken, Lazo spent her first couple years at O’Bryant getting a first-hand look at the problems. The school failed to make money on the yearbook program, and sales were low due to a tradition of focusing only on seniors and excluding the majority of the students. Most damaging, the yearbook was never completed in time for kids to receive copies before the year ended.

Obryant-BannerWhen the previous adviser decided to step down from the club, Lazo was given her shot to run the yearbook last year. Her first idea was to switch publishers to Walsworth, the same company that had printed her award-winning Boone yearbooks a decade earlier. From there, Lazo set out on a yearlong adventure to change the school’s entire yearbook culture.

“I knew what a yearbook was supposed to look like, I just didn’t know how to get there,” said Lazo. “The kids and I spent a lot of hours just figuring out how to do a yearbook right.”

Culture shock

Lazo, the staff and her Walsworth yearbook representative, Michelle Sidwell, quickly got to work on changing the O’Bryant yearbook’s contents. First on the agenda was changing the format from being a senior-only memory book to being more inclusive of every grade.

“(Lazo) wanted it to be journalistic, and wanted it to be an all-school book, the same type of yearbook she had,” said Sidwell. “The underclassmen really embraced it, but the seniors and some others really resisted.”

Looking back on it now, Lazo says it was like putting the school through “culture shock.” Some seniors who felt their yearbook was being “stolen” from them actually staged a protest. Teachers who had been in the school for years watched Lazo immediately implement such drastic changes and wondered what she was doing. Even as Lazo created a website to explain the changes they were making, and how it would benefit more students and create a better yearbook, it was a rough start.

“There were some nights I went home and cried,” said Lazo. “It is so hard to break a culture, even if you know what you’re doing makes sense.”

The good news? Amidst all the furor, on the first week of sales, 75 copies of the O’Bryant yearbook were sold – the same number that had been sold for the entire previous year.

Knowing what to do

Once actual production of the yearbook got under way, there continued to be plenty of bumps in the road. After all, for all of her dedication and enthusiasm, Lazo was still a first-year adviser without much yearbook training.

“The kids and I were equally naïve on this adventure,” said Lazo.

The challenges ranged from organization – one of the more frustrating examples came when the holiday break rolled around in December and Lazo realized they had not yet taken a single picture of the boys basketball team – all the way to equipment.

“They faced so many issues,” said Sidwell. “We were working one day, and a computer actually caught fire. I mean, really, there was smoke coming out of it.”

Glitches aside, the practical improvements to the yearbook were easy to see. The yearbook went from being a soft-cover edition of well under 100 pages to a hard-cover book of 160 pages. Coverage in the book included articles on a school club that went on a trip to the Dominican Republic, new forms of technology being used in the school and a student competing in a national poetry contest.

Instant credibility

All the hard work paid off when final deadlines were met and the 2011 O’Bryant yearbook was delivered on time, meaning that for the first time in school history seniors received their book in-hand before the last day of school.

“That was the moment when it all clicked. It was like instant credibility,” said Lazo. “People who had been in this school for 20, 30 years had never seen that.”

Sidwell was there the day yearbooks were handed out to seniors – the day the first real yearbook signing party had ever been held at O’Bryant.

“They got the book, and they didn’t know what to do,” said Sidwell. “Then you slowly saw people start to smile and the expressions change, and people ask, ‘Will you sign this?’ The room got louder and louder. It was really fascinating and fun to watch.”

Now, the yearbook is a topic of discussion at O’Bryant. Many students have already asked about next year’s book, and Lazo said she expects to again have about 26 students on the yearbook club’s staff. As far as learning on the job goes, she plans on doing a better job of staff management next year, allowing staff members to get more specialized with what they do and trying to sell some ads to businesses.

But all that is in the future for the O’Bryant yearbook program – a future that suddenly looks much better.

“I’m not even afraid of next year, because now we know what to expect,” said Lazo. “It’s crazy how much one year can change things.”

Evan Blackwell, CJE
Evan Blackwell, CJE

Evan Blackwell, CJE, is a Marketing Automation Specialist for Walsworth. He's been a writer, editor and web content specialist for Walsworth Yearbooks for the past 14 years, and is the author of the Yearbook Suite's "The Art of the Interview" unit. Prior to joining Walsworth, Blackwell spent five years as an award-winning newspaper and magazine journalist. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.