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.

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.

An Introduction

Indiana education is evolving. Here’s how Chalkbeat is growing to keep you informed.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools students line up at CFI 27.

When I first came to Indianapolis eight years ago, the failures of the city’s largest school district were on full display.

Indianapolis Public Schools was losing thousands of students to township, charter, and private schools. The continued dismal performance of several district schools put them on the brink of unprecedented state takeover.

Marion County was home to so many children living in poverty that they could fill the Indianapolis Colts’ football stadium, the local newspaper calculated, and then form a line outside it more than three miles long.

Among the first people I met in the city was an Indianapolis teacher who went Dumpster-diving at suburban schools for classroom supplies.

Still, the city was coming together in critical ways to support students and schools. Nonprofit organizations filled gaping needs, with school supplies, uniforms, and mentoring services. Education leaders searched for solutions as small-scale as targeted neighborhood initiatives and as big-picture as completely making over the entire school district.

Today, there’s a lot that has changed — and a lot that hasn’t. People across the state are re-thinking public education. Yet in many places, our students, teachers, and schools continue to face many of the same challenges.

I recently joined Chalkbeat as the new Indiana bureau chief to lead our coverage of the city’s schools and the state’s education policy landscape.

I’m coming from the Indianapolis Star, where I reported on education, politics, and diversity issues. I’d collaborated with Chalkbeat on stories about school integration and English-language learners.

I’ll be overseeing the work of our Chalkbeat Indiana reporting team: Shaina Cavazos covers state education policy, dissecting complex legislation and the politics that drive changes. Shaina has been investigating the underperforming Indiana Virtual School, raising ethical questions about its spending of public dollars, and revealing it hired few teachers and graduated few students.

Reporter Dylan Peers McCoy has been following the dramatic changes as Indianapolis Public Schools embraces charter partnerships, turning over control of some of its schools to outside groups.

I’ll also be contributing my own reporting, with a focus on charter schools and Indiana’s recent moves to publicly fund early childhood education, a topic that has gained greater attention with research showing how critical a child’s first years are to future academic success.

We’ll continue to do what Chalkbeat has always strived to do: provide strong, independent, in-depth coverage of efforts to improve public education for all kids, especially those from low-income families.

Please let me know about stories you’d like to see us write, or share feedback about anything our team has written. We’d love to hear from you.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@chalkbeat.org.

Holiday Reading

Here are five Chalkbeat stories to read this Presidents Day

PHOTO: Getty Images
A statue of George Washington with the American flag in the background in front of Independence Hall.

Happy Presidents Day! We’re off today, and we hope you’re enjoying a three-day weekend too.

I’m planning to spend part of today catching up on Chalkbeat stories. Since last summer, when I started as executive editor, I’ve felt like a student again. I’ve never worked in education journalism before, so I’ve tried to read as much as I can — and there’s no better place to start than Chalkbeat’s reporting.

In honor of the holiday celebrating George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and our other past presidents, I’ve rounded up a special reading list — for myself and for you, our trusted Chalkbeat community.

Two stories that take place in schools named after U.S. presidents:

Why one Brooklyn high school is making a big bet on teacher training

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

Two stories about local education leaders (even though they probably won’t ever get a national holiday in their honor):

Can this Detroit principal help her students learn quickly enough to save her school?

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

And one recent story that has nothing to do with Presidents Day but is so terrific I had to include it:

Tight-knit and tightly budgeted: Inside one of Denver’s smallest schools

-Bene

P.S. Got other education stories you think I should read? Send them my way!