What Smart Reporting on School Segregation Looks (and Sounds) Like
Down in Florida, the Tampa Bay Times investigated what happened when a local school board drops integration as a priority, and why Pinellas County has become the worst place in the state to be a black K-12 student (at least in terms of academic outcomes).
Among the staggering findings of the reporting team’s year-long investigation: 95 percent of black students in the Pinellas County schools failed to demonstrate basic proficiency when tested in reading and math. And in some schools, teacher turnover is so high that one class of students might see as many as a dozen teachers during a single academic year. These are relatively new developments, the Tampa Bay Times concluded, triggered by the abandonment of integration policies in 2007.
This is unsparing reporting about public schools in free fall. One 10-year-old African-American boy profiled in the series dreads getting up for class in the morning:
Waiting for him at the school up the road are all the things he has learned to dread: the endless shouting, the sudden brawls, the rookie teachers who can’t control their classrooms.
Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Mike Grego tells the newspaper that “I’m going on record saying we’re going to fix this. And we’re going to educate our students as if each one of them was our own kid.” But if help is indeed on the way, the newspaper notes, it’s late in coming:
Hired in 2012, Grego has launched reforms to aid students in the five schools. They include adding extended learning programs, extra summer instruction and bringing in counselors and social workers to connect families with outside services — initiatives that were proposed in the past but never started or were discontinued.
The newspaper’s remarkable interactive graphic (published earlier this week in advance of the series) notes that as the local schools became more separate, “they became less equal.” It’s important to remember that “equal” and “equitable” are not interchangeable terms in these conversations. (You can read more about that here.) Challenges to equity in educational opportunities are making their way through the courts in multiple states. I took a look at fairness in school funding formulas earlier this summer.
Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times Magazine teamed up with “This American Life” for a close look at school segregation in Missouri, and the reporting is getting much-deserved attention.
This is only the most recent foray by the venerable radio program into education journalism. One particular standout: The “Harper High” series with WBEZ in Chicago, focusing on the impact of gun violence on one school’s students and staff.
In the first of a two-part series, Hannah-Jones focuses on the “accidental desegregation” of the public schools in Normandy, Missouri. That’s next door to Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer a year ago. And it’s also the district where Brown graduated from high school.
Hannah-Jones won EWA’s Grand Prize for education reporting this year for her work with Pro Publica, looking at the impact of segregation on three generations of one Alabama family. We asked her to share some ideas for covering this important issue as part of our “How I Did the Story” series. You can read her piece here.