By Moriah Balingit

Covering schools can be grueling and it can be easy to get caught up in the mundane. At an IRE Conference panel, Dallas Morning-News reporter Tawnell Hobbs, Tampa Bay Times reporter Michael LaForgia and University of Missouri graduate fellow Francisco Vara-Orta offered their advice on how to dig deep on the schools beat and tell stories that go beyond board meetings and test scores.

1. Go beyond test scores.

Local, state and federal agencies track tons of data points – poverty rates, what advanced classes are offered, who is taking them, how many students are arrested, how many special education students are referred to law enforcement. Learn to navigate the data made available by your state and by the federal government, and learn when this data is released. One of the most comprehensive data sets is the Civil Rights Data Collection from the Department of Education.

Other things to request regularly:

  • Student directory information
  • Salaries for all employees
  • Check register

2. Follow the money.

Remember that schools are taxpayer-funded entities that demand the same kind of scrutiny given to other government institutions. Parents and students are not the only stakeholders. Taxpayers, too, have an interest in ensuring their dollars are spent prudently.

When the Dallas Independent School District began cutting teachers and raising class sizes, Dallas Morning News reporter Tawnell Hobbs decided to dig into the district’s spending. What she found was a lot of fat – of both the figurative (as in lavish spending on employee retreats) and the literal variety (as in the district had spent $86,000 on Chick-fil-A for employees). Hobbs found at least $57 million in fat.

“Money drives what’s going on in the classroom. Money drives the quality of the teachers … the buildings where the kids sit,” Hobbs said.

3. When schools are failing and kids are falling short, don’t let grown-up policy-makers off the hook.

When reporters at the Tampa Bay Times set out to explore why poor, black children in Pinellas County were doing so much worse than their peers, they decided to ignore the assumptions that have become convenient ways to excuse achievement gaps.

“There were all these notions out there that people use to explain away what was going on with these kids,” said reporter Michael LaForgia. “It’s a lack of parental involvement. It’s poverty … we set out to explode those myths.”

But the gaps, as it turns out, seem to widen as schools resegregated and as the largely poor, black schools lost resources.

“This was the consequence of a series of decisions that were made by people,” LaForgia said.

The resulting story, “Failure Factories,” garnered the Tampa Bay Times a Pulitzer Prize, and spurred changes in the district.

4. Make sure students have a voice in your story — but be cautious.

While reporting on Failure Factories, LaForgia tracked down children outside the school – at sporting events and tutoring centers – and through public records, like police reports documenting visits to the school. Tawnell Hobbs used student directory information to track down students at a school where she unearthed a scheme to cut out social studies and science in an effort to boost test scores in reading and math. Francisco Vara-Orta, who has covered education extensively, used Twitter to track down teachers and students.

But make sure you check with parents to ensure they understand what it means for their child’s name to be published and associated with a particular story.

5. Get inspired by the greats.

Schools reporting – with its late-night board meetings, angry parents and impossible-to-decode jargon – can be grueling and it can sometimes be difficult to get beyond superficial narratives. So keep track of what other great education writers are doing, advises Vara-Orta. In the last year, stories about schools have garnered top prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Polk Award. Here’s a small sample, from our panelists and from other journalists:

Dallas Morning-News: Dallas ISD spent millions on extras, analysis of check register shows

Tampa Bay Times: FAILURE FACTORIES

This American Life: The Problem We All Live With

L.A. Times: Smart talk from the ‘sex ed girl’

Want more? Check out the finalists for the Education Writers Association awards.

 


Moriah Balingit covers education for The Washington Post. She graduated from American University in 2015 with a master’s degree in journalism and public affairs with an emphasis on investigative reporting. She previously was the city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.