This Wildcat reporter takes being a television personality in stride

Courtney Cunniff didn’t know she would be trading her Ugg boots for a pair of ballet slippers while taping her segment for Dallas ISD’s “School Zone Dallas” television news show.

But to her credit, when Courtney was asked to change into a leotard and tights for the closing shot, she didn’t flinch. The 16-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School junior dutifully donned the ballet attire — even slipping on a tutu — for a segment that will air later this month about Eduardo Mata Elementary School’s ballet program.

“That’s what acting is,” Courtney shrugged.

She should know — she recently snagged one of the leads in Woodrow’s upcoming musical “City of Angels,” and that’s no small feat for a junior. Courtney also was the stage manager for Woodrow’s fall play, “Noises Off.” (She also manages to squeeze cheerleading and varsity softball into her hectic schedule.)

“I kind of audition for everything I see — for fun,” Courtney says.

That’s how her gig with “School Zone” came about. The show airs three times a year, broadcasting human interest and Dallas ISD news stories from the students’ perspectives. Courtney happened to see a sign advertising auditions right before they were held, and she showed up without the script that everyone else already had memorized.

“They gave me five minutes to memorize it,” Courtney says. “I don’t think they thought I was going to be able to do it — and I did.”

The producers knew they had to pare the group of 60 hopefuls down to 10. After watching Courtney learn the script on the spot and deliver it flawlessly, producer Michael Bell began pulling for her to make the final cut.

“I was really impressed with her,” he says.

He still is. As Courtney made her way around Mata Elementary — her hand motions, facial expressions and vocal inflections growing more pronounced with each take — Bell had nothing but praise for her.

“That was the best one,” Bell said after about eight tries. “Right on the money.”

The National Television Academy, Lone Star Chapter, has recognized the talent, time and effort DISD students such as Courtney put into the show. At a recent black-tie event at the Dallas Apparel Mart, “School Zone” won a Lone Star Emmy Award for Outstanding Magazine Format Segment, beating out adult-hosted TV shows with similar formats.

You can find Courtney just about everywhere these days. The “School Zone” segments air on WFAA-Channel 8 during prime time and subsequently on KERA-Channel 13. Also, School Zone posters with headshots of the student reporters hang in each of DISD’s 200-plus schools and are plastered on the sides of school buses. (Courtney is quick to make the disclaimer that her photo was taken “really early in the morning.”)

But she says the recognition is still nice — especially from the little people.

“The kids I baby-sit always say, ‘I saw you in the hallway,’ ” Courtney grins.

Courtney Cunniff’s School Zone Dallas segment about Eduardo Mata Elementary’s ballet program airs Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m. on WFAA-Channel 8.

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