8 don’t-miss Chalkbeat reads from 2019 to get you through winter break

One of the most appealing things about this time of year — after the office holiday parties and when most of the gift shopping is done — is the yawning promise of free time that comes during winter break. For many of us, that means catching up on a backlogged list of stories and books we haven’t yet had time to sit with.

Allow us to add to that list with the stories below. These are some of the standout features, storylines, and investigations our team has published in the last year, in no particular order.

1. Colorado reporter Yesenia Robles brought us the story of William, and so many unaccompanied minors like him: “Every year hundreds of children are arriving in Colorado schools with uniquely challenging stories after crossing the border into the U.S. without their parents.” Some school districts have programs for newcomers like William, during which students spend time learning English and U.S. culture to settle into their surroundings. This plea from William is hard to forget: “We’re the same as everyone, we’re not bad people. And we are here because we had no choice. It’s not something we want.”

2. Chalkbeat New York has long been covering the entrenched segregation in the city’s school system. That storyline began to see real shifts this school year, as several districts began implementing integration plans. Reporter Christina Veiga covered those efforts for District 15 in Brooklyn, where a pioneering diversity plan has already shown encouraging results. Christina spoke with some of the 6th-graders who were the first to enter middle school as part of the district’s new admissions plan. Their feedback will be integral to the success of the diversity push, which, as Christina reports, rests heavily on families overcoming fear of the unknown.

3. The deaths of two children with asthma at the same Newark school just two years apart has drawn to light some startling statistics for the city. Newark has a rate three times the national average for children living with asthma, and averaged a death per year from 2010 to 2017 for children with the illness. Devna Bose told the story of grieving parents in Newark who are pushing the district to prepare teachers for the likelihood of having students with asthma in their classes. A day after Devna published her story, the Newark Teachers Union vowed to make sure all teachers, aides, and clerks receive proper training to help these students.

4. The first year of college can be tough for anyone. But the challenges are greater for graduates from high schools in disadvantaged cities. In our ongoing Ready or Not series, Detroit bureau chief Lori Higgins and Newark senior reporter Patrick Wall set out to unpack those challenges, and find out what colleges are doing to help these students thrive. Programs like the Charles Drew Science Scholars at Michigan State University offer academic and career advising, as well as a tight-knit community of support. In Newark, summer “boot camps” and online remedial courses have had mixed results. (Want to keep following this series? Sign up for the Ready or Not newsletter to get the latest from Lori and Patrick.)

5. The dangers posed by lead was a significant storyline in our markets this year. Elevated lead levels were found in the water at seven out of 29 schools in Newark, according to district data released in October, and two out of three tested homes had lead in the water despite their use of filters. Lead found in hundreds of water sources in Indiana’s Marion County schools prompted legislators to call for the state to mandate blood testing for children and require schools to regularly test the water. In Detroit’s school district, students started the academic year with brand new water hydration stations, a vast improvement over the start of the previous year, when drinking water was shut off across the district due to elevated levels of lead and copper. And in Tennessee, we dug into the first wave of test results required by a new state law, identifying  nearly 100 schools across the state that had high levels of lead in the water. — ; Shelby County Schools later revealed that 39 schools had been flagged for high lead levels. Tennessee reporter Laura Faith Kebede captured this unforgettable moment on the campus of one of the flagged schools: “Bending to take a drink from a water fountain at Idlewild Elementary School …, Superintendent Joris Ray wanted to make a statement: ‘The water is fine. The water is fine,’ he said. Down the hall, a water fountain near the front door was disconnected and had a large ‘Please do not use’ sign. It was one of three at the Midtown school that tested for high levels of lead.” Chalkbeat Tennessee also published this helpful guide for parents of children at schools with contaminated water.

6. Our Chicago bureau did more than provide live, on-the-ground coverage of October’s 11-day teachers strike and another labor dispute with the union representing bus aides, custodians, classroom assistants, and security officerst. We also dug deep to explore major sticking points in contract negotiations: class size, prep time, support staffing, contract length, and teacher pay. Ariel Cheung’s piece on the district’s lowest-paid workers was deeply affecting: “I do this every day, faithfully, for 10 years,” bus aide Althea McCaskill told Ariel. “Why can’t I get paid what I’m worth?” Almost two months after the strike ended, Chicago educators and most support staff still hadn’t received the retroactive pay and full raises they agreed upon.

7. The nonprofit GreatSchools has created one of the most prominent school rating systems in the country — you’ll see its school scores on Zillow, Redfin, and Realtor.com. Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum and Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee found in their investigation this year that GreatSchools’ ratings effectively penalize schools that serve mostly low-income students or black and Hispanic students. And that’s despite GreatSchools’ own data that shows many schools serving low-income, black, and Hispanic populations are doing a good job helping students learn math and English. The result  “is a ubiquitous, privately run school ratings system that is steering people toward whiter, more affluent schools.” If you haven’t already, read their deeply reported story — or watch the video produced in collaboration with Vox here.

8. Indiana reporter Dylan Peers McCoy investigated how a loophole in state law has allowed schools and districts to report dropped-out students as leaving to home-school, with little oversight to ensure these students are indeed learning at home. A Chalkbeat analysis found that of the 3,700 Indiana high school students in the class of 2018 that were recorded as leaving to home-school, more than half came from 61 of the state’s 507 high schools. Those numbers, Dylan writes, “suggest that Indiana’s lax regulation of home schooling and its method for calculating graduation rates are masking the extent of many schools’ dropout problems.” Following Dylan’s reporting, the state superintendent questioned the manager of Emmerich Manual High School, which had recorded the highest proportion of students leaving to home-school of any traditional high school in the state. Now, the for-profit operator of Manual and two other schools in Indianapolis may have to hand back the reins to Indianapolis Public Schools.