That's Steel Valley senior Chelsea Pearson looking appropriately thoughtful (front row, 4th from left) with her Hear Me 101 class.

If you want to help kids get their voices heard, you have to do more than teach them to make media products.

“A lot of youth media-making programs have kids finish a project, then pat them on the back” and walk away, says Jessica Pachuta, who runs Hear Me 101, part of Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab’s Hear Me program. “Too often there’s no follow-through,” she says. “The mission of the Hear Me project is: we can deliver their stories to the people who need to hear them.”

Now six Hear Me 101 documentaries will debut May 22 at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Melwood Screening Room in North Oakland.

For the past year, Hear Me 101 has been working with about 50 students in classrooms at Clairton High School, McKeesport Technology Center and Steel Valley High School, as well the F.U.S.E. afterschool program (which includes students from Wilkinsburg High School and Imani Christian Academy). At Clairton, the group did a film on teen girls’ experience with bullying in middle school – “a lot of girl-on-girl violence, what happens and what can be done about it,” Pachuta says. They also completed a documentary on technology access in their high school, called “Access Denied.” McKeesport students created three films: on tech access, hip hop in education and mental health among teens.

The Steel Valley students were inspired to make their film when a teacher informed them that they ranked 437th out of 500 last year among state school districts based on statewide standardized testing. The kids worked all year to investigate what that ranking signified and what should be done about it.

“We don’t want to be defined by that,” says Hear Me 101 participant Chelsea Pearson, a Steel Valley senior. “Our school is more than just a number.” She says this year’s film is “about our Steel Valley community, about how great people come out of here.” She calls the result “really cool –it’s really nice to look back and see the message we got out there.”

This was Pearson’s second year in the 101 program. Learning how to edit interviews together “was actually really difficult” last year, she says. But, she adds, “it was really interesting to see all the points of view and how people see us.”

“There’s a lot of other things students get at school than these tests, and they ought to be counted …” she concludes.

The group’s documentary last year got them invited to a meeting with Steel Valley business executives as well as an honor from Allegheny County Council. “We hope to have a similar impact with their film this year,” says Pachuta.

In keeping with Hear Me’s mission, at least one student from each film crew will continue to work with Hear Me for six weeks this summer, researching how they might reach legislators and other decision makers with their message. The idea, says Pachuta, is “to transform students into their own agents of change.”

After May 22, the videos will be available for viewing here.

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He teaches magazine writing for Creative Nonfiction magazine.