the road to chalkbeat

Go behind the scenes with the reporters of Chalkbeat New York

It’s been about a month since we announced our plans to change our name to Chalkbeat New York and launch a new website. Last week we re-introduced you to bureau chief Philissa Cramer, who talked about why she was excited for GothamSchools to become Chalkbeat New York.

The exciting evolution would not be possible without our team of top-notch journalists, who traverse the city to bring you daily news about New York City’s schools. So this week we want to introduce you to our reporters in New York — whose experience in the organization ranges from several years to just a few weeks.

Below, they share why they are passionate about education reporting, what teachers helped them get where they are today, and embarrassing stories from the job. You can read more about Chalkbeat’s Colorado and Tennessee reporters, too.

Sarah Darville, reporter
On the team since September 2013

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1. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: Most recently I was writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and before that I was studying at Columbia. I was an intern for GothamSchools in 2011, and became really impressed with what Philissa and Elizabeth [Green] were doing. When that was over, I stayed in touch, freelancing a bit and watching the site expand. When I graduated, I was thrilled to come back and be a part of a growing nonprofit news organization focusing on an issue I care about.

2. Story you are most proud of: I’ll go with a recent one about the issues remaining for special education teachers dealing with the city’s information system for those students. Those issues affect thousands of people every day, and they haven’t seen significant improvements.

3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: (Besides my two-time Teacher of the Year/all-time mom of the year?) My first journalism teacher, Mrs. Atkinson, for letting me loose upon my high school and backing me up when I inevitably got into trouble for it.

4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: I once spent a long time wandering around City Hall … looking for City Hall. Was no one else expecting a skyscraper? It’s New York City!

E-mail Sarah at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sarahdarv.

Geoff Decker, senior reporter
On the team since June 2011
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1. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: Freelance sports writer covering mostly competitive running and sports media; student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

2. Story are you most proud of: The story I’m most proud of is covering a high school football game that included students who had just been through hell on account of Superstorm Sandy. The football game was the first time they had seen each other and it was an emotional reunion to cover.

3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: David Lewis and Indrani Sen, my journalism co-professors at CUNY. As editors, they constantly made my stories better, as teachers they pushed me to be a better reporter, and as informal publicists, got my stories picked up in the New York Times — and on the radar of hiring editors.

4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: A month into the job, I left on my bike one morning to interview the founding principal of a new school in Bedford-Stuyvesant and didn’t come home for another 36 hours, when a judge released me from Brooklyn’s central booking. Want details? Shoot me an email.

E-mail Geoff at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @GDeckernews.

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin, community editor/reporter
On the team since January 2013
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1. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: I was on a research fellowship in Buenos Aires and met a group of high school students on the night they staged a takeover of their school building. They were protesting changes to the national curriculum that they said had been made without student input. Over the next month, students across the city joined the protest and occupied more than 50 high schools. I tried to piece together as much of the backstory on education in Buenos Aires as I could in a short time, but I’m sure I missed many details. Joining Chalkbeat gave me the chance to learn and write about education as an ongoing, evolving story, this time as part of a dynamic and talented team.

2. Story you are most proud of: As Chalkbeat New York’s community editor as well as a reporter, I’m always on the lookout for stories like this one that highlight local efforts and priorities.

3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: Fred Strebeigh, who teaches creative nonfiction writing at Yale University. He saw that I loved writing and interviewing and convinced me to give journalism a shot.

4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: When I stopped by a newly-occupied high school in Buenos Aires and was turned away at the door by three 15-year-olds who told me, “We haven’t developed our press strategy yet.”

E-mail Emma [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @emmarsr.

Patrick Wall, reporter
On the team since October 2013patrick

1 Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: DNAinfo, covering the South Bronx. I decided to join Chalkbeat because it’s a smart, dynamic, growing news organization covering a topic — education — that I believe is vitally important and fascinating.

2. Story you are most proud of: I’m proud of our recent story about some students who have been trapped in a sort of graduation limbo, where a few points on an exit exam has kept them from earning diplomas. I think it illustrates the unintended consequences that can sometimes accompany well-intentioned policy changes — in this case, the move to raise graduation standards.

3. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: I’ve been fortunate enough to have had amazing teachers at every grade level since I started pre-school. That being said, I still think about lessons I learned from a few of my graduate school journalism professors just about every day on the job.

4. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: In my last job I was covering a news conference where the New York City mayor was touting a new parking app for smartphones. I asked whether that posed any distracted-driving dangers and he replied, without missing a beat, that there were many instances when people should avoid using the app, such as while driving their cars … or taking a shower.

E-mail Patrick at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @patrick_wall.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.