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.

Inside Chalkbeat

‘If they know we regularly care’: Our New York bureau and its newest reporter are listening up

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high-fives students at P.S. 78 on Staten Island as they leave after the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

A new name has been popping up at Chalkbeat as our organization continues to grow, and the byline belongs to Reema Amin.

This latest addition to the New York reporting team, which I began overseeing as bureau chief in September, was off to attend her first press conference — held by the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers union chief — before her first day on the job had ended.

She was instrumental to our reporting on the teachers contract, announced last week, and has already visited Albany, where she will be reporting occasionally on state education policy. Like all members of the New York bureau, she contributed this week to our joint reporting project with ProPublica, exploring whether counselors in New York City schools can really meet students’ needs, especially as student homelessness has reached an all-time high.

Chalkbeat reporter Reema Amin

And most recently, she looked at how a proposed rule change by the Department of Homeland Security could, if adopted, discourage immigrant families from applying for benefits, such as Medicaid, which in turn could threaten the financial viability of the city’s school-based health clinics.  

Reema grew up in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, and has worked as a breaking-news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She most recently covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press, a newspaper serving communities in the southeastern corner of the state, and co-hosted a politics podcast for the paper.

In Virginia, Reema had just begun covering a rural county when she happened to attend a school board meeting and noticed a distraught mother, whom no one was listening to. Reema did listen. Jessica Leitch had been struggling to get her autistic son the special education services he needed — and qualified for.

Parents like Leitch, Reema said, “keep meticulous records” — they must to advocate for their children. Using this paper trail to start her own investigation, Reema sought out other parents and made public records requests and soon was combing through hundreds of pages of documents to uncover how the district led the region in special education complaints.

One of Reema’s key strategies as a reporter, she says, is to keep in touch with as many different people — parents, teachers, students, education officials and policymakers — as possible on a daily basis. “If they know we regularly care,” she says, “they’re more likely to share” their own experiences and concerns, a philosophy Chalkbeat also embraces.

Reema is joining a veteran Chalkbeat news team in New York.

Reporter Christina Veiga, who joined the bureau in 2016 from the Miami Herald, where she worked for more than a half-dozen years covering city government and later the Miami-Dade Schools, has kept Chalkbeat readers apprised of the latest news about the schools chancellor, the debate over the admissions process to the city’s specialized high schools, and the unfolding push for greater integration in districts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.

Alex Zimmerman, who has written for the Village Voice, the Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among other publications, also joined Chalkbeat in 2016. He has reported on the specialized high school debate, on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal and community schools program, the largest of its kind in the country, and whether heavy investments in wraparound social services in schools can really move the needle on students’ academic achievement. He has also provided occasional dispatches from the city’s charter-school sector and explored the challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Our story editor, Carrie Melago, works with me editing stories and helping guide coverage (as well as serving as story editor for our Indiana bureau). Carrie previously honed her sharp news instincts as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.

My own interest in education began in New York and later Newark, cities where I taught taught for seven years. (I’m also the story editor for Chalkbeat’s Newark bureau.)  Inequities I witnessed as a teacher inspired me to write about these experiences, which in time led to my reporting on education for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Over these same years, the city’s schools — and education nationally — have experienced seismic shifts. In my first classroom in the 1990s, teachers still wrote with chalk, there was no school email or classroom computers. Now teachers can plan lessons — or marches — on Facebook; parents can vent about busing woes on Twitter, and students are regularly part of the online discussion. And some things we really wish had changed haven’t: rates of childhood poverty, homelessness and segregation.

In the New York bureau, we will be tackling some of these subjects anew or as part of our ongoing reporting. We will be making deliberate efforts to engage more with the communities we cover and to amplify their voices. Christina will be looking deeper into one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives — his push to rapidly expand early-childhood education. And building on Reema’s and Alex’s past reporting on students with disabilities, we will be taking a harder look at special education in the city. And as classrooms remain the heart of any school, we will be spending more time there. We want to hear from you –whether you are a teacher, a parent, a student, or those responsible for imagining and implementing education policy. Stay tuned for news of our first listening tour, where we come to you to hear your concerns and questions, so we can then go out and address them through our reporting.  

We welcome feedback — about the stories we’ve done, the stories we’re doing and those we’ve missed and should now pursue. You can always reach out to ny.tips@chalkbeat.org. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to one or all of our newsletters. We look forward to the continuing conversation.

Inside Chalkbeat

Meet the talented people who will help us push Chalkbeat into the future

As the new school year kicks off, we’re both looking forward and looking back.

This has been a significant year for us. We covered important stories, broke big news, and launched coverage in two new cities, Newark and Chicago. We also expanded our team. We’re now one of the country’s largest nonprofit newsrooms, and certainly one of the largest telling local stories — at a time when local coverage is shrinking across the country.

In the year ahead, we will continue to tell the story of education in America by investigating both local realities and the national trends that shape them. We kicked things off this summer with a listening tour (stay tuned for more of what we heard at those events). We’re also taking some big steps toward strengthening the other parts of our work. We’re going to further diversify our revenue so we can guarantee the very best and always entirely independent coverage of public schools for a long time to come. We’re going to invest in technology and design, to help us reach and engage more readers. And we’re going to chart a clear path for the significant growth we need to take on to step up to the challenges of the times.

To do that, we’ve brought on a new cohort of leaders in the news business. I am so thrilled to introduce Maria Archangelo, our new senior director of partnerships, who will lead the charge in diversifying and growing our revenue; Becca Aaronson, our new director of product, who will guide strategic investment in our core technology and internal capabilities; and Alison Go, who is working with us to design Chalkbeat’s growth plan.

We are also expanding our national team with the addition of Francisco Vara-Orta as a national reporter and data specialist for Chalkbeat. Francisco’s skills will give Chalkbeat the ability to more closely cover several organizations working to influence schools nationwide and enable us to better use data to find and tell stories in all of Chalkbeat’s bureaus.

 

Maria Archangelo

Photo: Alan Petersime

Maria comes to Chalkbeat after working as publisher and executive director of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a 24-year-old nonprofit education news organization. Most of her 30-year career has been spent in traditional media. She worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and an editor at the Sun’s community newspapers, and was editor of the daily newspaper in the capital of Vermont. Dismayed by the changes in the industry, Maria decided to devote herself to growing revenue for journalism and joined the business side. From 2006 to 2012 she served as publisher of the award-winning Stowe Reporter in Stowe, VT. She also helped lead an innovative international community magazine project and took a (brief) side trip into communications and marketing. She graduated from Temple University with bachelor of arts in journalism.

Becca Aaronson

Photo Alan Petersime

Before Chalkbeat, Becca spent nearly eight years at fellow nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune, where she was their first-ever product manager. She was responsible for creating and managing the Tribune’s product roadmap, leading their website redesign, conducting user research, and ensuring that technology products aligned with audience and brand strategy. Over the course of her Tribune tenure, she wore many hats, including softball coach of The Runoffs. She co-founded the Tribune’s data visuals team, where she designed, built, and managed several award-winning investigative projects. And while covering health care from 2012 to 2014, she gained 5,000 Twitter followers on the day she live-tweeted the Wendy Davis abortion filibuster. Becca has a bachelor’s degree in cultural theory from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif.

Alison Go

Alison is working on growth initiatives across various teams at Chalkbeat. Previously, she was a product manager at Facebook, Amazon (Audible), and Rent the Runway, and in a former life, she was a journalist at U.S. News & World Report (covering higher ed!), the Boston Globe, and the San Jose Mercury News. Alison received her MBA from Wharton and undergrad degree from the University of Michigan.

Francisco Vara-Orta

Francisco joins Chalkbeat in September as a national reporter and data specialist. He was previously at Education Week, where he covered philanthropy and parent engagement and managed data projects, and an open records researcher at Investigative Reporters and Editors. Before that, he reported for the San Antonio Express-News, Houston Chronicle, and the Austin Business Journal, among other news organizations. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in his hometown of San Antonio, and earned a master’s degree in data and investigative journalism from Mizzou as a Thurgood Marshall Fellow. Follow him @fvaraorta.