Chalkbeat Impact 2020
Chalkbeat reporting impacted education in each of our communities.
In 2020, Chalkbeat recorded 280 real-world impacts as a result of our reporting. We track our impact using our MORI tool, for Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence.
Some highlights include...
Over the summer, the Chicago team co-published a story with Block Club Chicago that exposed transparency issues with Local School Councils around school police votes and chronicled violations of Open Meetings Act rules, as well as the district’s guidelines for the councils around posting meetings, having a quorum, and inviting public participation. After the story broke, schools chief Janice Jackson pledged to create a centralized list of LSC meetings and vote dates. However, that pledge fell short when the list failed to include important details, such as log-in information or meeting times. We became the only source tracking that information, and our regular social media updates were widely shared in school communities, boosting public participation in the conversations.
“I enjoy reading all the comments and real time info on Twitter.”
The team also successfully led the push to open up City Hall’s school reopening press briefings to education reporters. Previously, they were dominated by general interest broadcast media which limited the access education reporters had to ask questions of public officials. Thanks to the team’s efforts to open up an education reporter pool, the press conferences were ultimately reopened.
Also last year, we investigated Chicago Public School’s purchase of used computers from a politically connected local firm after learning that a contributor to the mayor’s campaign was awarded a $1.6 million no-bid deal for a purchase of technology that failed to meet the district’s standards for virtual learning. Several of the laptops, which were distributed to a South Side School, lacked cameras — a critical component of virtual learning. Fortunately, the district vowed to replace them and after our story ran, the CPS inspector general’s office launched an investigation into the sale.
Shortly after the pandemic began, reporter Yesenia Robles questioned the Westminster Public Schools spokesman for this story on how the state’s school districts were working with local health departments to prepare. Her request for a comment spurred further coronavirus planning and resulted in district principals convening to discuss how students could work from home in the case of school closures.
During this time, the Colorado bureau also collaborated with 22 other local newsrooms on a project to document a day in the life of the state during Covid-19. The centerpiece narrative story ran on the front page of The Denver Post, on the homepage of Colorado Public Radio, and in newspapers and on news sites across the state. The abridged version also moved on The Associated Press national wire.
Senior reporter Ann Schimke won a fellowship that allowed her to dig deeper into inconsistent, poor quality reading curriculum. Her stories gave parents better insight into reading instruction, and after our story published, the Jeffco school district announced it was moving to standardize reading instruction.
The team was joined by Jason Gonzales, who took on Chalkbeat’s first-ever higher education beat in Colorado in partnership with Open Campus. Jason, who also covers legislative matters, is a Colorado native who graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder. Jason’s reporting on Colorado’s higher education budget put into context years of financial challenges for public colleges and universities. He also showed how the state’s low rate of FAFSA completion limited how much help students could get from CARES Act money. Jason’s coverage has gotten him a variety of invitations to participate on local radio shows and generated a lot of conversation about how to prioritize higher education when budgets are shrinking.
Last spring, people across the nation gathered to protest anti-Black violence, police brutality, George Floyd’s death, and systemic racism. The Detroit team was approached by a group of students who requested a space to discuss race in America and how young people can work to change unjust systems. We agreed to facilitate an hour-long conversation attended by over 100 guests, including a number of educators, to allow these students to discuss what school leaders and teachers can do to better support students during this time. Author Kathleen Cushman, a Chalkbeat reader and event attendee, watched the event and decided to feature four of the student panelists in her book “Fires in Our Lives: Advice for Teachers from Today’s High School Students”, which presents first-person testimony on how today’s youth experience the risks and challenges of high school.
“I appreciate the elevation of early childhood education in Chalkbeat.”
In the fall, Chalkbeat Detroit began collaborating with the Detroit Free Press and Education Trust-Midwest to hold a series of virtual events to help Michigan residents understand the effects of the pandemic. The first event, held in December, explored education policy related to the pandemic. A second event, held in March, highlighted what school and community leaders must do to address the issue of missing children. In September, the Detroit bureau partnered with the community group Citizen Detroit to provide a unique speed dating forum that helped city residents get to know the candidates running for the Detroit school board. The bureau also led the way on a number of fronts with its reporting, including being the first news outlet to draw attention to steep enrollment drops, consistently writing about the challenges facing early childhood providers, and with reporting on important issues such as student activism, student mental health, and the rise of home schooling.
In the fall, Chalkbeat collaborated with the public radio show “This American Life,” on an episode about school reopening in the time of the pandemic. In “The Case of the Well-Prepared Elementary School,” Chalkbeat Indiana Bureau Chief Stephanie Wang explored how a school that has prepared for every Covid scenario faces a problem they never saw coming — far fewer kids showed up on the first day of school than were expected. Stephanie spent hours with the principal and staff as they prepared for reopening and then was with them as they desperately tried to figure out what went wrong and what to do next. This American Life producers looking for stories of the challenge of reopening schools in a pandemic loved Stephanie’s story and helped her turn it into a radio segment on the popular public radio show.
While the pandemic forced schools to rethink how to conduct in-person schooling, it also forced some parents to consider options outside of the traditional school system, such as virtual schools. We covered one Indiana virtual school that offered $1,700 stipends to new students, a practice that state education officials said could be considered an illegal enrollment incentive. After our story came out, scrutiny from the state increased and as result, the school switched to a new district partner.
Last March, New York City was hit fast and hard by the pandemic, forcing schools across the metropolitan area to transition quickly to remote learning. Two NYC internet providers offered free 60-day service to any new customers with K-12 or college students in the wake of school closures in order to ensure that students would still have access to their education. Unfortunately, some families found that they were unable to take advantage of the wifi services because of previous outstanding bills. After an inquiry from Chalkbeat, internet providers decided to waive this rule and allow customers with outstanding bills to take advantage of the free wifi offer.
“Thanks for your diligent work.”
The following school year, the New York team continued to follow the pandemic closely and broke a story about how teachers at a Brooklyn school were exposed to a child who tested positive at a public hospital. The school did not discover the result until 10 days afterwards when they checked in on the student to inquire why they had been absent for multiple days. The city says the family failed to tell the school immediately about the test, and also did not share “close school contacts” with contact tracers when they called the family, following the positive test. That left the teachers clueless for ten days, potentially exposing other students and their families, but fortunately, the teachers all tested negative. Citing our story, the education department said that this situation should not have happened. As a result, they changed the policy and subsequently required contact tracers to cross check school information with the DOE if the tracer doesn’t have those details.
In Newark, as with many cities across the country, food insecurity became an apparent issue within the first months after the start of the pandemic. After Chalkbeat reported that many families were not picking up the free meals available to them through the district’s program, the city of Newark publicized the program to ensure that residents were aware of it. The district also switched from doing a daily meal distribution to giving out multiple meals at a time, which was one of the strategies used by districts with higher distribution rates that our story highlighted.
At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, we published a story about attendance during the first month of remote learning that showed that certain high schools were struggling with attendance. The story mentioned West Side High School, which attracted the attention of the leader of the district’s high school parents council, who contacted Chalkbeat to get more data about the school. Armed with that data, the parent leaders at the school held an emergency meeting to discuss attendance challenges.
Chalkbeat and the Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook formalized a partnership to launch Chalkbeat Philadelphia in August. The Notebook’s longtime reporter and contributing editor, Dale Mezzacappa, joined the Philadelphia team as a senior reporter. Dale had been with the Notebook since 2008 and prior to that, spent 27 years covering education for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Johann Calhoun is the team’s bureau chief. Previously a senior editor at the Philadelphia Tribune, Johann came to Chalkbeat with a strong commitment to local news and a passion for serving local communities. The two have proven to be a powerhouse team, honoring the Notebook’s long history in the city and expertly tackling the impact of the pandemic on Philadelphia schools from the moment the bureau opened.
In November, Johann and Dale held their first Chalkbeat virtual event during which they met with high school journalists to discuss how they have reported on the pandemic for their school newspapers and what the school year had been like so far. The group also discussed Philadelphia’s plans to reopen schools, which at the time had been postponed amid another surge in COVID-19 case counts in the city.
Last May, Shelby County Schools held an in-person press conference to discuss school reopening options for the following school year. Unfortunately, the press conference did not have an avenue for reporters to directly ask the superintendent questions. Chalkbeat TN reporters pressed district officials on what safety measures they would have to ensure transparency and accessibility by reporters, resulting in the county setting up a virtual option for reporters to ask questions.
The following school year, Shelby County Schools again began to discuss learning options for January in terms of the continuation of remote learning or reopening. The district delayed publicly sharing the results of its parent survey, leaving the public unsure about what parents had indicated they would opt to do. When this happened over the summer, the district made a decision about reopening before releasing the results. The Chalkbeat team reached out to a source, who was able to provide district wide data but they did not have the most recent survey results. This prompted the team to reach out to the district to let them know that we planned on doing a story about the data we had, in hopes that this would compel them to share the most updated information. This tactic worked and the team was able to write a story sharing the latest parent survey data with parents.
Reporter Kalyn Belsha and data editor Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee spearheaded Chalkbeat’s first collaboration with the Associated Press, resulting in data-driven stories that documented key trends for the first time. The first story used data collected from 677 school districts to show that Hispanic and Black students were much more likely than white students to start the school year online — a trend that came to define the year to come. The second story looked at school enrollment declines, finding that schools across 33 states were serving 500,000 fewer students than they were the year before. Those pieces relied on Chalkbeat reporting from Indiana and Tennessee, and led to Newark’s Patrick Wall also collaborating with the AP on a story about measuring learning loss.
Reporter Matt Barnum brought to light how guidance issued by U.S. Department of Education under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos effectively redirected pandemic relief dollars to private schools — a move that legal scholars believed put DeVos on shaky legal ground. Four federal lawsuits followed, and Chalkbeat followed the story until the department gave up its fight months later. Barnum’s reporting would go on to win a prize from the Education Writers Association.
Across Chalkbeat, our reporters have worked hard to bring the challenges of remote learning to life. Early in the pandemic, Belsha profiled a high school student in Chicago who had to take on additional responsibilities at home, like caring for her two younger siblings, while grappling with the sudden shift to remote learning and studying for the SATs. The story led to a partnership with Reveal and even offers of SAT prep from Chalkbeat readers.