This Week In CPS: Talking Local Education Reporting

If you’re reading this post, please join City Bureau and Chalkbeat Chicago this Thursday night at Public Newsroom 75 to talk about local education reporting.

The event will be held at the Mikva Challenge offices, 200 S. Michigan, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Here are the key questions for conversation:

  • How can journalists cover schools in a way that is informed by and empowers communities?
  • What does education reporting get wrong?
  • What are we missing in the public discourse around Chicago schools?

I think that two of these questions are really important. If we can better connect communities and journalists to inform coverage and empower communities that have traditionally been locked out of decision making, we will go a long way toward addressing a key piece of what is missing in the public discourse.

I actually don’t think our current education reporting gets too much wrong. The errors are more of omission than commission. The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times focus on central office issues, as major metro dailies should. The Tribune’s groundbreaking Betrayed series on sexual abuse in schools is a good bet to win major journalism awards this year. Lauren FitzPatrick at the Chicago Sun-Times has done yeoman’s duty in tracking long-running scandals, from Barbara Byrd-Bennett to dirty schools. But the realities of time and money, plus CPS reluctance to let reporters inside schools, mean that FitzPatrick and her Tribune counterpart, Juan Perez, Jr., can’t often get deep in classrooms and communities.

Meanwhile, WBEZ’s education team of Linda Lutton, Sarah Karp and Adriana Cardona-Maguigad are able to tackle more in-depth and local feature stories and get them right. (I know; I’ve been a fan of Lutton’s for more than a decade and I used to work with Karp and Cardona-Maguigad. Full disclosure.)

Thanks to a Spencer Foundation grant, Lutton had the luxury of a year spent in classrooms at Penn Elementary in North Lawndale, and produced The View from Room 205, which was nominated for a Peabody Award. (She’s a 2014 Peabody winner for her work on This American Life’s Harper High School series.) To me, The View from Room 205 showed the massive disconnect between our vision for public schools as equalizing opportunity for poor kids of color, and the reality that we won’t achieve equity without much more and smarter attention both to improving teaching and support for kids inside urban public schools and to addressing the need for good jobs, better mental and physical health services and other issues in the communities those schools are part of.

And Chicago Reporter education beat writer Kalyn Belsha is about to follow in Lutton’s footsteps at Spencer. She’ll spend the next year digging into data to find out where Black students who used to be in Chicago are moving and what their school experiences are like now.

The real problem is: what issues aren’t Chicago reporters covering? A few big ones leap to mind:

First, it’s really hard to get inside school buildings to see what kinds of teaching and learning are going on. Newcomer Chalkbeat Chicago just published a great example of what is possible when reporters have access to schools and data in this piece about helping Black boys succeed academically. I hope reporter Adeshina Emmanuel has it on his calendar now to check back with Fuller Elementary principal Marilyn McCottrell to see if the encouraging initial progress helping them improve continues through the new school year.

Though Chicago has had unusually good staying power on key issues–like dropout rates–thanks in part to the stability and long memories of local education reporters, it’s really hard for reporters to take a long-term view of anything. This is a place where researchers at places like the Consortium on Chicago School Research and University of Illinois Chicago can be a real asset.

Second, getting close-in enough to help parents and local community leaders know what is and isn’t happening in their particular schools is really hard, even for outlets like Chalkbeat and WBEZ. This is where newer outlets like Block Club Chicago, ethnic media and hyperlocal neighborhood papers can help fill the gap. But they often have younger or less experienced reporters who move through quickly. City Bureau is doing a great job of training a new group of young Chicago reporters–people who have grown up in the neighborhoods and bring their own experiences with CPS to bear on the issues, including our own contributor Samantha Smylie. I hope Thursday’s event will bring people from all these places together with the students, educators and parents who need and use information to make their schools, and Chicago, a better and fairer place to learn.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is a senior writer and editor at Education Post, but before that she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of an elementary student at Chicago’s Namaste Charter School. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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