Five Questions For … Christopher Sherman of The Associated Press on Covering Schools in Crisis
As an Associated Press reporter assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border, Christopher Sherman’s beat is usually more about drug wars and immigration than public schools. But in recent weeks he’s spent more time on campuses there. In early January, Sherman wrote about a Brownsville, Texas middle schooler who was shot and killed by police after he brandished what turned out to be a realistic-looking pellet gun. He reported on south Texas students inadvertently injured by a competitive marksman who was engaged in target practice on a friend’s property adjacent to their middle school. Also last month, Sherman reported on a decision by the Premont Independent School District to cancel all athletics in a last-ditch effort to improve academics and stave off a takeover by the state. He spoke with EWA about dealing with schools and students as a reporter who doesn’t usually cover the education beat.
1. Typically it takes time for an education reporter to gain the trust of school officials, particularly when there’s a sensitive story in the works. How much does that slow you down?
You never know what you’re going to get when you roll into a small town. With the Premont story, I had no recent contact with the local school district prior to this. They were extremely welcoming and candid about the situation. I think they were a little surprised their decision to cancel athletics had attracted attention from the Associated Press on a national level. At the same time, they were forthcoming about the situation. Walking around the town, asking people questions or finding people at the school, I found they were very open. There were only a couple of exceptions when I walked into small businesses in the downtown, and you could tell it was a touchy topic. They didn’t want to go on the record with their opinions.
2. How do you compensate for your lack of familiarity with the local schools?
In terms of access, you really don’t know what you’re going to get. I think it helps that I approach people in a very straightforward manner and admitted right up front that I knew nothing about their town or the situation. I asked them to walk me through it from the beginning, and how they got to this point. They are usually willing to do that.
For the Premont story, being as small a town as it is, the people there didn’t have to deal with as much media pressure and they didn’t get quickly defensive. The district didn’t have public information staff I had to negotiate with — in this case I was dealing directly with the superintendent.
3. Does AP have a policy on talking to students, juveniles or minors?
There’s no formal policy. In all these cases on three separate campuses, I’ve respected whatever rules the school districts laid out for me. I found students off campus. For the Premont story, I waited until school let out for the day and talked to students as they were walking home. They were happy to talk to me about it. I tend to agree that a high school-age [student] can answer. At the same time, any time I deal with someone who’s not media savvy, I try to make sure I use comments that are appropriate. I don’t use comments that might embarrass them later because they didn’t understand the gravity of what they said. You definitely are more cautious with kids or adults who might not be media savvy.
4. Given that you haven’t spent much time on campuses, did anything in particular catch your attention about the school environments?
You tend to look at everything and compare it to your own experiences. In Premont, it’s a small and financially struggling district. The buildings aren’t in good condition, and no one up there would tell you otherwise. You try to imagine how that would affect your own learning if that were the only schooling option available to you.
It’s been a long time since I was in middle school and high school. You compare what the expectations and challenges for schools were back then, and what students and teachers have to deal with now. None of it looks easy.
5. Any predictions about what will happen to Premont schools?
I tried to write the story in a way that made this clear but I hope it came across that this is a dire situation. This is a temporary reprieve that the state has given them. The district has a list of 11 goals that must be met (to prevent closure), and everyone I’ve talked to agrees that this list is really imposing. In terms of the administration and the school board, they’re obviously trying to make the right moves to keep the district open, but it’s going to extremely difficult in terms of finances and academics to turn things around.
This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.