Getting to know ... Us

It’s a new school year. Here’s what Chalkbeat Colorado is curious about — and how you can help us find the answers.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty/For Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep, a DPS charter school, walk in front of the building with their teacher. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/For Chalkbeat)

When Jeffco Public Schools announced the possible closure of five elementary schools last spring, Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles wanted to see firsthand what was at stake.

She arranged a visit to Pleasant View Elementary School in Golden, housed in a 1950s brick building in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, a mobile home park and aging stripmalls. There, she talked to a woman who runs an on-site pantry that hands out milk and eggs to needy families in a school building that lacks a full sprinkler system or adequate roof coverings.

Jeffco district staff at the time didn’t consider equity as a factor in selecting schools for possible closure. Yesenia’s coverage showing poor students would be disproportionately impacted by the proposal helped change the conversation. The school board voted to close Pleasant View but spare the four others, and new Superintendent Jason Glass cited Chalkbeat’s coverage and broader concerns about equity in his recent decision to put a moratorium on school closures.

These are the kinds of stories Chalkbeat is dedicated to covering — stories that inform, enlighten and make an impact, especially for students who historically have lacked access to a great education.

Now that a new school year has begun, we’re asking you to join us in informing and supporting our journalism. Below you’ll hear from Chalkbeat Colorado reporters about the stories they’re focusing on this year, but as you read, know that we can’t tell them without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, submit a story tip, give us feedback or propose a First Person essay by emailing us at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.

All this work demands time and talent — neither of which are free. If every Colorado reader gave $10 right now, we could raise $650,000 to support our mission this year. That’d be enough for all these stories and more. We hope those who can will consider making a $10 tax-deductible donation here.

Melanie Asmar, covering Denver Public Schools

Melanie’s aim is to unpack what reforms the state’s largest school district is undertaking, explain the reasoning behind them and the backlash against them, and examine whether they’re having the intended effect, such as improving student learning or increasing school integration.

One of the big DPS storylines is right in front of us: This fall’s school board election. With control of the seven-member board hanging in the balance, this election could be a referendum on Denver’s reforms, which include giving families a choice from a “portfolio” of schools, including traditional district-run, charter and innovation. We’ll be profiling the races and following the money.

Melanie also will be digging into DPS’s work to tackle the impacts of gentrification and efforts to better integrate schools, as well as its experiments with granting schools more autonomy.

Melanie has a talent for rich, narrative storytelling, bringing classroom scenes to life with telling details and dialogue. The judges of this year’s Education Writers Association awards agreed: Melanie was a finalist in beat reporting for her work covering DPS.

You can reach Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org and 303-446-7625, and follow her on Twitter.

Nic Garcia, covering state education issues

Nic is all things state of Colorado, which means covering the state legislature, State Board of Education, Colorado Department of Education, and issues of statewide significance.

Nic is a product of Pueblo City Schools, which has seen its share of struggles, giving us a valuable perspective about challenges facing Colorado schools.

This coming year, he’ll be focusing on big conversations over how to best hold schools accountable for their performance educating kids, the eternal struggle over adequately funding schools in Colorado, and attempts to tackle teacher shortages in some areas and subjects.

Nic also will be mining education angles in the 2018 governor’s race — and there are many. A number of candidates, especially on the Democratic side, have long track records on education. We’re planning “education profiles” of the candidates, fleshing out their pasts and proposals.

We’ll be looking for more stories in rural Colorado, which is much more diverse than many rural areas in other states and faces its own distinct challenges, many centered on race and poverty.

Nic stands at an important intersection — explaining the goals of policymakers to educators, students and parents, and the realities of educators, students and parents to policymakers.

You can reach Nic at ngarcia@chalkbeat.org and 303-446-7624, and follow him on Twitter.

Yesenia Robles, covering suburban school districts and English language learners

Yesenia came to us a year ago from The Denver Post to flesh out a beat that is central to our mission — the suburbanization of poverty and how it is playing out in public schools.

As someone who was born in Mexico and grew up in Denver schools as an English language learner, Yesenia can relate to many of the students she writes about.

Yesenia will continue to invest significant resources in covering Aurora Public Schools, which has a high-needs student population and its own reform agenda under Superintendent Rico Munn. That will include chronicling this fall’s high-stakes school board election.

We’ve decided to turn more attention to a couple of high-poverty districts that haven’t gotten enough attention: Adams 14 in Commerce City and Westminster Public Schools. Both ran out of time last school year on the state’s “accountability clock,” and we’ll be paying close attention to how their state-approved improvement plans play out.

Both districts serve large numbers of English language learners. Are districts doing enough to help these students succeed? Who is failing and succeeding? We intend to find out.

You can reach Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org and 303-446-7622, and follow her on Twitter.

Ann Schimke, covering early childhood education and healthy schools

The early childhood years are getting more emphasis in Colorado and nationally as policymakers, educators and funders realize how critical these years are to brain development and learning. No reporter in Colorado owns this subject like Ann Schimke.

Our coverage focuses on the drive for quality and equity in early childhood, covering issues including finding qualified teachers, navigating funding disparities and addressing discipline.

This fall, look for a project from Ann and Yesenia examining life in a child care desert — a long-neglected Denver neighborhood where good options for early care are hard to find, and a variety of organizations and advocates are trying to change the narrative.

Ann also has taken a broader lens to covering how health intersects with schooling, expanding our coverage beyond traditional physical health issues (obesity, immunizations, and nutrition) to cover social and emotional learning, mental health, and childhood trauma.

Everyone is talking about social and emotional learning. One of Ann’s goals for this year is to take a thoughtful look at the growing arsenal of tools and approaches that help foster these skills.

You can reach Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org and 970-238-0179, and follow her on Twitter.

growth plans

Now hiring: Chalkbeat Newark is set to expand

PHOTO: Bene Cipolla/Chalkbeat
A Chalkbeat Newark focus group in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will add a new reporter in June.

Chalkbeat Newark has some breaking news of our own to report: We’re expanding.

Less than a year after Chalkbeat opened a new bureau dedicated to New Jersey’s largest school system, we’re adding another reporter in June. We’re expanding through Report for America, an innovative program that places beginning journalists in communities that need — and deserve — more on-the-ground reporting, and we especially welcome applicants from Newark.

“We are thrilled to have support to add more reporting capacity to our team in Newark,” said Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief. The bureau is the organization’s seventh; Chalkbeat also has reporters in Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee, and is continuing to grow.

“We launched coverage in Newark at the request of a diverse group of community members,” Green continued. “Since then, more and more members of the community have told us they value the work we are doing: holding officials accountable, keeping the conversation honest, and shedding light on the consequences of major decisions that affect public education.”

The new reporter will bolster Chalkbeat’s coverage at a pivotal moment for Newark, as the district completes its transition from decades of state oversight back to local control, and as a new superintendent begins to make his mark on the 36,000-student school system.

The reporter will be partly funded by Report for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening local news coverage. The group, which is modeled on Americorps, is helping this year to place 60 journalists in newsrooms across the country — from Puerto Rico to Wisconsin to California and now New Jersey. Report for America will split the cost of the journalist with Chalkbeat and local donors.

Report for America was founded by two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, who worried that the downsizing of newsrooms across the country threatens democracy. The nonprofit organization receives funding from a number of donors, including the Ford Foundation, Facebook, and Google.

Newsrooms that host Report for America-funded journalists have complete control over their work; donors play no part in the editorial process.

“Like all support to Chalkbeat, this gift comes with no strings attached,” Green said. “Our ultimate responsibility is always to tell the truth.”

Journalists interested in covering Newark schools (or any of the other RFA-sponsored roles) have until Feb. 8 to apply for the position. Along with their normal reporting duties, Report for America hires must also participate in a community-service project, such as mentoring student journalists.

We especially welcome Newark-based reporters to apply. If you know someone who’s right for the job, please encourage them to submit their information.

listening tour

Tour notes: What we heard when we listened to our communities in a new way

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
At a Chalkbeat Indiana listening session, kids made their own fun.

As with many initiatives at Chalkbeat, the idea started in one location. Our seventh bureau had just launched in Chicago, and our first order of business was to introduce ourselves to the city. But our new bureau chief, Cassie Walker Burke, knew we had to listen as well as speak.

She proposed a listening tour — a roving set of sessions where our top priority would be empowering our audience to share with us. The launch went so well that our entire news organization took up the initiative this summer and fall, holding 14 events in six locations across our network.

A deep belief in engagement has been encoded into Chalkbeat’s DNA from its founding in 2013, and it was one of the aspects that drew me to join the organization last year as executive editor. Our core values include putting down roots in local communities, and working with and for readers. We track shares, retweets, and readership the same as any other publication, but we are most committed to driving impact: bringing stories, people, and stakes alive for readers so they can engage in informed action and debate.

Before our readers can go out there and make their voices heard, we have to listen — to their concerns, their questions, and their critiques of our coverage. We’ve heard from parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, education wonks, legislators, and policymakers since the beginning, and we have appreciated and used their insights. But it’s a constant work in progress. Especially because we report for people who have historically lacked access to a quality education, we always aim to amplify and empower new voices.

Setting off on a listening tour, starting in Chicago and spreading out across our other local markets, emerged as the perfect strategy to make this happen.

Our goals

Before we set out on our tour, we identified four goals for the project. This also helped us think through how to structure the “stops” on the tour, as well as how to measure success.

  1. Generate story ideas
  2. Build and diversify our source network
  3. Deepen the understanding of the Chalkbeat brand as community-oriented
  4. Deepen community participation

The planning process

We shied away from a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing each bureau to tailor the program to fit their needs. An action force that included at least one representative from each bureau met regularly to discuss progress. That group designed a worksheet to help teams organize their listening sessions: by topic, by audience, by location, or by some combination of the three approaches. In some cases, we decided to center listening sessions around topics we knew we wanted to focus enterprise reporting on in the coming year.

We invited engagement-minded folks from other media organizations to share their expertise with us, too. Alexandra Smith of Whereby.Us, Ashley Alvarado from KPCC, and Jesse Hardman from Listening Post Collective helped us mightily during the planning process, answering our questions and offering suggestions. We also partnered with community organizations on the ground to help with logistics, audience-building, and trust. By seeking out established organizations to co-sponsor events, we signaled to potential attendees — especially those who were new to Chalkbeat — that we were to be trusted too.

The results

Chalkbeat put on a total of 14 events across six out of our seven markets (one bureau sat out for logistical reasons), with most teams executing one or two events. Chicago went all-in with seven listening tour stops as part of the bureau’s launch efforts. Here are some other key results:

  • Nearly 400 attendees in total
  • 84 percent hadn’t read Chalkbeat before
  • More than 70 story ideas
  • Close to 150 new sources
  • About 220 email subscribers

In our newer bureaus, we got a lot of questions about our organization: How are we funded? What do we cover? Why and how can our readers participate? In our more established markets, we were able to home in on audiences we wanted to reach in a more targeted way, and topics the community was passionate about.

Following up

Listening is great, but we knew that if we did not carry forward what we heard, we would be failing our readers. So we made sure to follow up by emailing participants to thank them and publishing posts after events when it made sense. Michigan Radio covered one of our Detroit sessions, our Newark bureau designed a survey to keep the conversation going, and Denver used a feedback form to solicit input on how the sessions went. We also used a text-messaging platform, GroundSource, to follow up with attendees in Memphis.

We’re continuing to sort through the 70+ story ideas we gathered, and using those to inform some meaty enterprise work. Whenever we publish stories that tie back to the listening tour, we’ll inform participants. We’re also planning to designate stories on our site that emerged from community conversations, so all our readers have proof that we’re not just listening, we’re acting on what we hear. And we know that listening isn’t a one-time event. We’re keeping up with our tour participants throughout the year to keep the cycle going, so we can report for their communities even better.

One powerful quote from a Memphis reader drove it home. It reminded us that the hard work that went into this project — planning, wrangling logistics, making it happen on a nonprofit budget — was all worth it, and intentionally listening to our communities makes our journalism stronger.

“It was really inspiring to be a part of this. It was also really empowering, like what we say doesn’t just go into some black hole. You’re here and listening.”

— Chalkbeat Tennessee listening tour attendee