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. 

introductions

Get to know Chalkbeat’s new Colorado bureau chief

Erica Meltzer (photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat).

There’s a new byline — and bureau chief — at Chalkbeat Colorado.

Erica Meltzer started in the role Jan. 8. As part of her duties, Erica will cover the state government beat for us, continuing a legacy that began a decade ago with the launch of EdNews Colorado.

EdNews founder Alan Gottlieb and statehouse reporter Todd Engdahl had no shortage of things to chronicle that year, including the passage of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, a sweeping bill that has had a lasting impact on public education in Colorado.

What was once EdNews Colorado is now Chalkbeat, a national education news organization dedicated to covering efforts to improve education for all students, especially those from low-income families.

We introduced Erica briefly before, and explained how her arrival coincides with a number of exciting changes at Chalkbeat as we continue to grow. Now, with Erica officially on board and four stories already to her name, we thought you should get to know her a little better.

We talked with her about how she got started in journalism, her favorite stories, and how she’ll approach the job.

Let’s start with your journalism origin story. What inspired you to become a journalist?

When I was in sixth grade, we had an assignment to pick a job and research it and give a presentation. I can’t actually remember what prompted me to pick reporter, but by the time I was done with that assignment, I wanted to be a reporter, and I still can’t think of a better job. I’ve met so many people I never would have met otherwise and been privileged to hear and tell their stories. I get to ask all the questions I’d be too polite or shy to ask if I didn’t have a notebook in my hand. And every day is different.

I worked on my high school paper, where we took our job as the only journalists with access to the student community very seriously. We wrote about air quality problems in our school, and we wrote about how the administration responded when a student murdered his parents. Asking tough questions from the relatively powerless position of a student taught me a lot.

What are your favorite kinds of stories to tell?

I really like stories that combine human interest with policy issues. Fortunately for me, there are a lot of stories like this in education. I really believe in the value of journalism to help people be informed citizens. We can do that through stories that show how policy will affect ordinary people and through stories that put faces to these questions we all wrestle with.

And then sometimes I like to take off my policy nerd hat and do something weird and fun. At my last job, I interviewed an Elvis impersonator who serves as a kind of unofficial historian for Colfax Avenue. He had this crazy, stream-of-consciousness style of talking, and I just wanted to channel that for readers so they could enjoy him as much as I did.

In your introductory newsletter, you relayed an exchange you had with a local TV reporter of your acquaintance about joining Chalkbeat. This person said, “Chalkbeat, huh? You’re going to be getting into the minutiae.” And your response was: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Then you went on to explain that you’ve found some really good stories in small things. Does anything in particular come to mind, an example you can share?

When I worked in Tucson, I covered county government, and I would keep an eye on all sorts of lower-level board and committee agendas. At some point I noticed something like the fourth horse property coming before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in six months and called up a source who worked in the planning department to ask if there was any particular reason these horse properties all needed variances. It turned into a really good story about how the community was changing. All these properties with livestock had once been way out of town where nobody cared what they did, and now they were surrounded by subdivisions and all sorts of things that had never been a problem were suddenly a problem.

Sometimes journalism involves noticing a loose thread and pulling on it and seeing what happens.

You came to us from Denverite, a local news startup that has done some creative things inviting readers into the news conversation. Can you give an example of that working well, and maybe share some lessons you’ve learned about how to better involve readers in stories?  

Denverite has an occasional feature called Readers’ Choice that involves asking readers what stories they’d like to see covered — sometimes we did this as a poll with a discrete set of options — and asking readers to submit questions on those topics. This served as the springboard for a lot of good stories — everything from why Denver has these flagstone sidewalks that trip us up to what’s so bad about gentrification.

Sometimes people who work in the policy realm bring certain assumptions to the table, and those assumptions bleed over to the reporters who spend a lot of time hanging out with those insiders. Hearing from readers provided this reality check about what people know and don’t know and what they’d like to see explored further. It’s a way of getting outside that “everybody knows” trap, and it opens us up to new ways to approach familiar topics.

And of course, readers know a lot of things that we don’t know. They live and work in the communities we cover. They’re teachers, or they have kids in school. So they’re a great resource.

You covered the legislative session for Denverite last year, and now you’ll be covering education issues under the dome for Chalkbeat. How would you describe your approach to covering the statehouse beat?

Covering any government body, I like to keep the focus on how people will be affected by what that body is doing. Sometimes that requires a turn-of-the-screw story on some action at the committee level, but more often, I’m going to be looking for the big storylines and themes of this session and trying to put bills into context with the larger discussion of school quality and equity in access to education. By nature, I’m more interested in policy than in political intrigue, but of course politics is how we get things done in a democracy, so sometimes the political story is the story.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers as you begin this role?   

I’ll be frank. I haven’t covered education in-depth in a long time, and a lot has changed. I’m reading a lot and trying to talk to as many people as I can get up to speed. If there’s something you’d like to see covered or if you have feedback — positive or negative — about something I or someone on our team has written, please get in touch with me. I want to hear from you.

Erica Meltzer can be reached at [email protected] or 303-446-7635. Follow her on Twitter here.

a look back

The seven Chalkbeat stories from 2017 I’ll be re-reading this holiday season

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

Holidays are about family, food — and best-of lists. As you step into your holiday, let me humbly suggest seven Chalkbeat reads from 2017 to make your break more delightful.

  1. Step into Olga Montellano’s child-optimized home — and get to know a neighborhood that is much more than the “child care desert” label it’s earned — with this excellent longform piece by Ann Schimke and Yesenia Robles.
  2. Get mad, but not in the I-just-spent-too-long-on-Twitter way. In that energized way, where you learn a lot at the end, with this lively and readable investigation by Shaina Cavazos, about a virtual charter school in Indiana. (Then read the sequel: the Republican governor’s response to Shaina in a one-on-one interview.)
  3. Look at Detroit’s school district through the eyes of a new superintendent who is both one of the district’s toughest critics and, at the same time, perhaps its most optimistic defender. A great profile by Erin Einhorn.
  4. Witness democracy in action, or maybe retreat?, with this story by Monica Disare — which helps you see why Monica finds the arcane-but-super-powerful governing board overseeing New York’s schools fascinating.
  5. Get inside the heads of some of the nation’s most powerful philanthropists, who are increasingly coalescing on a single idea for what public education should look like. Spoiler: it’s pretty different from what we see today, and — signature Matt Barnum — it’s a story told with scrupulous fairness and care.
  6. Follow educator Tami Sawyer on her journey from a buzzing cell phone as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville to Confederate monuments toppled this week in Memphis, a gripping, emotional story courtesy of our own Laura Kebede.
  7. We resurfaced this 2016 gem after Charlottesville, so I’m saying it counts for a 2017 list. It’s a roundup of advice from teachers about how to talk about race, and you should just bookmark it forever. Because in 2018, we all need to keep getting better at having this conversation.

Enjoy. And don’t forget to donate to Chalkbeat if you haven’t already. You know this, but I’ll say it anyway: Even tiny donations make a big difference to securing our independence. The more supporting readers we can point to and say, don’t mess with them, the better.

Thank you, and happy new year!