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A teen shares what it's like to be in school with no clean water

Georgianna McKenny, 17, is the high school grand-prize winner in NPR's fifth-annual Student Podcast Challenge.
Imani Khayyam for NPR
Georgianna McKenny, 17, is the high school grand-prize winner in NPR's fifth-annual Student Podcast Challenge.

Georgianna McKenny's award-winning podcast begins, fittingly, with a blaring alarm.

It's an alarm clock, waking her 17-year-old cousin, Mariah, as she navigates a morning, back in January, when living in Jackson, Miss., meant waking up without access to clean water.

No showers, no drinkable water out of the tap, and, for a few days, no school.

McKenny is the newly-announced high-school winner of NPR's fifth-annual Student Podcast Challenge. In a year with more than 3,300 entries – from middle- and high-schoolers in 48 states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico – McKenny and her winning entry tell the story of the toll Jackson's water crisis has taken on the city's students.

"I don't listen to podcasts"

Georgianna McKenny attends school two and a half hours northeast of Jackson, in Columbus – at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a prestigious, public boarding school for academically talented high-schoolers from all over the state.

In the school's sun-filled lobby, summer-school students lower a handmade rope over a balcony. Others watch or conduct experiments of their own around the staircase. Mounted on one classroom door are posters in Russian, one of at least five languages students here can learn.

The school is something of a wonder, as is Georgianna.

A rising senior, she is soft-spoken, with glasses and hair in braids that hang to the corners of her broad smile. We meet her in the lobby, amidst the chaos, along with her English teacher, Thomas Easterling, who assigned the podcast as part of his composition class.

Georgianna poses with her English teacher, Thomas Easterling, who assigned the podcast contest as part of his composition class.
/ Imani Khayyam for NPR
Imani Khayyam for NPR
Georgianna poses with her English teacher, Thomas Easterling, who assigned the podcast contest as part of his composition class.

"The idea was, they need to know their hometowns better," Easterling says of the assignment in his University Composition class. "Since I have students from all over Mississippi, they did research on the parts of their hometown that gave them a sense of place."

Georgianna grew up south of Jackson and struggled, at first, to settle on a subject. Then she mentioned the water crisis, which has troubled Jackson for years, while texting with a friend from out of state.

"She lives in Georgia," Georgianna remembers. "I texted her, and she was like, 'What is that?' Like, she didn't know about it. I was like, really shocked."

We walk to Easterling's classroom, where Georgianna heads to her usual desk, in the back corner, and begins explaining how she went about making her podcast.

"I kind of had a vision in my head. I spend a lot of time in my head, actually, so it wasn't that hard," she says, smiling.

That's Georgianna – disarmingly honest. While most of Easterling's students worked in pairs – one writing, one producing – Georgianna did both, alone. Though she admits: She didn't actually know how to make a podcast.

"I don't listen to podcasts," she says, "they're, like, really boring."

But once she settled on the Jackson water crisis, and specifically, on her cousin Mariah's experience of it, Georgianna had something just as powerful as experience.

She had purpose.

"No water comes from the faucet"

NPR judges loved Georgianna's entry because she took on a major story in her community, conducted in-depth interviews – and made excellent use of sound.

After being awakened by that blaring alarm clock, "Mariah starts her day by going to the bathroom, to check if her water pressure is working before getting ready for school," Georgianna narrates at the beginning of her podcast. "No water comes from the faucet."

When Mariah looks for a bottle of water, she finds none. Welcome to Jackson in January, 2023.

Georgianna's podcast is about a few tough days in January, when low water pressure across the city hit families and schools hard.

Georgianna McKenny wins the high school award in NPR's fifth-annual Student Podcast Challenge.
/ Imani Khayyam for NPR
Imani Khayyam for NPR
Georgianna McKenny wins the high school award in NPR's fifth-annual Student Podcast Challenge.

For two days early in the month, all Jackson Public Schools went virtual because little to no water pressure in schools made it difficult to prepare meals and flush toilets, Georgianna reports. Even after students returned for in-person learning, low water pressure remained a challenge.

"Something so simple as using the bathroom has become difficult," Georgianna narrates, under the sound of a flushing toilet.

"They ended up shutting down some of the bathrooms" because the toilets could no longer be flushed, says Mariah, Georgianna's cousin, who remembers one particularly uncomfortable day.

"Class was not my main focus," Mariah says. "I couldn't do anything else besides hold it."

Georgianna also interviewed an administrator with Jackson Public Schools, who agreed to discuss the crisis as long as Georgianna promised not to use her name.

Because water pressure continued to vary from school to school, instead of returning to virtual learning, the district sometimes sent students from one school to another.

"There were times when some other high schools relocated a grade level to our campus, which also made for extra adjustment to the classrooms," the administrator says in the podcast. "Teachers weren't able to be in the classrooms they're usually assigned to. Students weren't reporting to the area where they were assigned. So it just made for a very unpredictable circumstance."

Mariah tells NPR, in a follow-up interview in downtown Jackson, that her school was one of those that ended up hosting a lot more students. "Sometimes the classroom would be packed. And just imagine the lunchroom, because our lunchroom is really not that big."

The school administrator told Georgianna, the water problems even affected what students were given to eat. If there was enough water pressure, the cafeteria could prepare full, hot meals. If not: sack lunches.

Mariah, Georgianna's cousin, was not a fan. "Imagine getting turkey and ham-and-cheese sandwiches for seven days straight. It felt like we were in prison."

The good news is, this was back in January. Jackson Public Schools tells NPR, with the exception of a few boil-water notices and one high school having to return to virtual learning again in February, the district's schools operated largely as usual for the rest of the school year.

As for Georgianna, she admits one of the hardest things about creating her podcast wasn't the reporting itself; it was listening to the sound of her own voice.

The day Easterling played her assignment for the class, Georgianna remembers, "I requested, 'Can I please leave the classroom when you play it?' Because I couldn't stand it."

Easterling agreed, as long as she agreed to come back for her classmates' critique.

Now, in winning NPR's Student Podcast Challenge, Georgianna McKenny is getting exactly what she wanted: A platform to sound the alarm on behalf of the kids of Jackson.

To listen to Georgianna's podcast, click here.

Visual design and development by: LA Johnson
Audio story produced by: Lauren Migaki & Janet Woojeong Lee
Audio and digital story edited by: Steve Drummond

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Lauren Migaki
Lauren Migaki is a senior producer with NPR's education desk. She helps tell stories about teacher strikes, college access and a new high school for young men in Washington D.C. She also produces and hosts NPR's podcast about the Student Podcast Challenge.
Janet W. Lee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]