counting down 2014

Changes in Jeffco, testing defined year for Chalkbeat readers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco Public Schools students took to the streets for a week in September to protest a proposed curriculum review committee they believed would censor some of their classes.

As the year comes to a close, Chalkbeat Colorado asked readers to share their most memorable education-related moments of 2014 for our first digital yearbook. We heard from nearly 150 parents, teachers, district leaders, and policy experts.

There’s no question, the changes happening in Jeffco Public Schools — from how teachers are paid to how U.S. history is taught — kept our readers’ interest. We also heard concerns about how  new state standards are being rolled out and changes to the testing system.

Here’s a sample of what’s on the minds of some of our readers:

“Jeffco wanting to review AP history,” wrote Stacy Rader, of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, in answer to a question about the most surprising news story of the year. “I think it was blown out of proportion. The board wanting to review the textbooks is one thing. The school walkouts made it seem like the Jeffco board had physically removed the textbooks from the schools and burned them. I think it was an over-reaction and I was surprised how much media attention it received.”

Other folks answered the question this way:

“The student protests,” wrote a reader who identified himself only as Ron. “I wasn’t sure students would protest, but I’m proud of them for doing so. I love the fact they are becoming part of the democratic process.”

“Some teachers had enough nerve to try to fight back,” answered Kathy. “We usually just do what we’re told.”

Teacher Mark Sass said not much surprises him any more, but “the emerging role of students in education policy, be it in Jeffco with APUSH, or with opting out of testing has been surprising.”

While most responses centered on Jefferson County, the backlash against testing and standards caught the attention of some of our readers.

“Increasing opposition to Common Core, PARCC, and standardized tests from all parts of the political spectrum,” wrote a reader who identified himself only as Jim. “Odd to have right wing and left wing agreeing on something.”

Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools said the political fight around the standards has become outsized.

“Colorado has always had academic standards, and the politicization of the adoption of Common Core and PARCC was a real distraction,” she said.

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign echoed Flood in his response.

“I was most surprised this year by the lack of understanding out there regarding the new standards and assessments in schools,” she wrote.  “I heard some really surprising ‘myths’ about who created the standards and what was in the tests, etc. I think when people learn more and see these new tools in action, they will really appreciate how rigorous and relevant they are to our students’ success!”

But the conversation about testing has been a good one, argued Colorado’s education commissioner Robert Hammond.

“It has given us a great opportunity to have a conversation around federal and state minimum testing requirements as well as make sure that we are doing the right amount of testing, with the right tests which will have the greatest positive impact on the students’ education experience,” he said.

Some outliers included Sean VanBerschot’s answer. He was most shocked by the dip in test scores at Denver’s STRIVE charter network. VanBerschot is Teach For America Colorado’s director.

And a few readers, who did not share their names, cited funding and the negative factor, a legislative workaround to both balance the state’s budget and meet the constitutional requirement to fund educations, as a top concern for the year.

You can read more responses to our survey in your very own copy of Chalkbeat Colorado’s 2014 yearbook. The digital download is yours when you donate to Chalkbeat’s end-of-year campaign. And when you do, your contribution will be tripled by some very kind donors. 

the starting line

Chalkbeat’s launching a newsletter all about early childhood. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

Our newest newsletter is called The Starting Line, and it’s all about early childhood — those brain-building years from birth to 8 years old.

As the Chalkbeat team has grown over the last five years, so has our coverage of early childhood education. Now, we’re making an even bigger investment in the topic with a monthly newsletter that will feature key early childhood stories from Chalkbeat as well as other news outlets.

In recent months, we’ve written stories about new child care rules that could threaten funding for hundreds of Illinois providers, Teach For America’s efforts to mint preschool teachers in Colorado, and discussions among Indiana leaders about where to find the money for new preschool seats.

Our goal is to keep you informed about broad policy issues in the early childhood world while also sharing on-the-ground stories that provide a window into how it all plays out in the lives of real people.

Expect to see the first issue of The Starting Line in early November. And remember to let us know what you think as it takes shape. If there’s a compelling early childhood topic, trend or study you’d like us to dig into, or an early childhood leader we should profile, let us know.

If you’re interested in receiving The Starting Line, sign up below. Then, send this link to a friend or colleague who cares about early childhood issues, too.

Finally, for those of you who want even more Chalkbeat, we have a ton of other newsletters as well: local dispatches from each of our bureaus — Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter, one designed especially for teachers, and a Spanish-language roundup out of Colorado. Sign up for all our newsletters here.

Inside Chalkbeat

‘If they know we regularly care’: Our New York bureau and its newest reporter are listening up

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high-fives students at P.S. 78 on Staten Island as they leave after the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

A new name has been popping up at Chalkbeat as our organization continues to grow, and the byline belongs to Reema Amin.

This latest addition to the New York reporting team, which I began overseeing as bureau chief in September, was off to attend her first press conference — held by the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers union chief — before her first day on the job had ended.

She was instrumental to our reporting on the teachers contract, announced last week, and has already visited Albany, where she will be reporting occasionally on state education policy. Like all members of the New York bureau, she contributed this week to our joint reporting project with ProPublica, exploring whether counselors in New York City schools can really meet students’ needs, especially as student homelessness has reached an all-time high.

Chalkbeat reporter Reema Amin

And most recently, she looked at how a proposed rule change by the Department of Homeland Security could, if adopted, discourage immigrant families from applying for benefits, such as Medicaid, which in turn could threaten the financial viability of the city’s school-based health clinics.  

Reema grew up in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, and has worked as a breaking-news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She most recently covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press, a newspaper serving communities in the southeastern corner of the state, and co-hosted a politics podcast for the paper.

In Virginia, Reema had just begun covering a rural county when she happened to attend a school board meeting and noticed a distraught mother, whom no one was listening to. Reema did listen. Jessica Leitch had been struggling to get her autistic son the special education services he needed — and qualified for.

Parents like Leitch, Reema said, “keep meticulous records” — they must to advocate for their children. Using this paper trail to start her own investigation, Reema sought out other parents and made public records requests and soon was combing through hundreds of pages of documents to uncover how the district led the region in special education complaints.

One of Reema’s key strategies as a reporter, she says, is to keep in touch with as many different people — parents, teachers, students, education officials and policymakers — as possible on a daily basis. “If they know we regularly care,” she says, “they’re more likely to share” their own experiences and concerns, a philosophy Chalkbeat also embraces.

Reema is joining a veteran Chalkbeat news team in New York.

Reporter Christina Veiga, who joined the bureau in 2016 from the Miami Herald, where she worked for more than a half-dozen years covering city government and later the Miami-Dade Schools, has kept Chalkbeat readers apprised of the latest news about the schools chancellor, the debate over the admissions process to the city’s specialized high schools, and the unfolding push for greater integration in districts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.

Alex Zimmerman, who has written for the Village Voice, the Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among other publications, also joined Chalkbeat in 2016. He has reported on the specialized high school debate, on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal and community schools program, the largest of its kind in the country, and whether heavy investments in wraparound social services in schools can really move the needle on students’ academic achievement. He has also provided occasional dispatches from the city’s charter-school sector and explored the challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Our story editor, Carrie Melago, works with me editing stories and helping guide coverage (as well as serving as story editor for our Indiana bureau). Carrie previously honed her sharp news instincts as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.

My own interest in education began in New York and later Newark, cities where I taught taught for seven years. (I’m also the story editor for Chalkbeat’s Newark bureau.)  Inequities I witnessed as a teacher inspired me to write about these experiences, which in time led to my reporting on education for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Over these same years, the city’s schools — and education nationally — have experienced seismic shifts. In my first classroom in the 1990s, teachers still wrote with chalk, there was no school email or classroom computers. Now teachers can plan lessons — or marches — on Facebook; parents can vent about busing woes on Twitter, and students are regularly part of the online discussion. And some things we really wish had changed haven’t: rates of childhood poverty, homelessness and segregation.

In the New York bureau, we will be tackling some of these subjects anew or as part of our ongoing reporting. We will be making deliberate efforts to engage more with the communities we cover and to amplify their voices. Christina will be looking deeper into one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives — his push to rapidly expand early-childhood education. And building on Reema’s and Alex’s past reporting on students with disabilities, we will be taking a harder look at special education in the city. And as classrooms remain the heart of any school, we will be spending more time there. We want to hear from you –whether you are a teacher, a parent, a student, or those responsible for imagining and implementing education policy. Stay tuned for news of our first listening tour, where we come to you to hear your concerns and questions, so we can then go out and address them through our reporting.  

We welcome feedback — about the stories we’ve done, the stories we’re doing and those we’ve missed and should now pursue. You can always reach out to ny.tips@chalkbeat.org. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to one or all of our newsletters. We look forward to the continuing conversation.