Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Grand Prize Winner Offers Advice on Investigating Student Absenteeism

EWA Grand Prize Winner Offers Advice on Investigating Student Absenteeism

The Chicago Tribune’s investigative reporting team of David Jackson, Gary Marx, Alex Richards and Scott Strazzante won the 2013 Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting on May 4 during EWA’s National Seminar at Stanford University. The team won the award for “An Empty Desk Epidemic,” a series that looked at chronic absenteeism in elementary schools and the impact it has on student’s education careers. Jackson and Marx offered a presentation on the prize-winning series during the conference.And below Jackson also offers advice on how to cover the story. Stream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes.


Our investigation gained access to Chicago’s internal school attendance database and revealed a devastating pattern of K-8 grade absences that disproportionately affect African-American youth and children with disabilities. Officials for years published upbeat and misleading statistics, but we found roughly 32,000 of Chicago’s elementary students — or 1 in 8 — missed at least four weeks of classes per year, while thousands more simply vanished from the attendance rolls.

To bring this data home, we chronicled the lives of young people who dropped out in the elementary grades, or stood on the verge of doing so.

The data and street reporting were separate, but equally daunting. The common lesson: You’re writing about kids, so be transparent.


Whether you’re in a rural county, sprawling suburb or big city, internal student-level records contain rich troves of information that reveal patterns in test scores, medical care, transportation, discipline, attendance and safety, among other vital topics. Top-notch journalism can help communities and officials protect youth and enrich their lives. But student-level data is shielded by powerful privacy laws.

a) Before you start requesting data, learn as much as you can about what information your district maintains in its electronic and paper files; interview current and former school clerks and data-keepers, for example; FOIA data layout fields if you cannot get them otherwise. Be clear in your own mind about which data fields you need and which you can live without.

b) From the outset, talk to authorities and explain the civic purpose of your journalism. Be transparent: You cannot go down this road unless you put everything on the table with school officials whose mission includes fiercely guarding youth

c) Try to get a concrete picture of what school officials must do to produce records: Does it mean getting boxes out of storage? Copying thousands of pages? Pulling electronic data from several separate platforms? Be sensitive to the labor your query entails.


We hit the streets and talked to youth and their families at drop-in centers, churches and tenement buildings. We encountered elementary-grade girls who were kept home to care for younger siblings, boys who ran loose on the streets and families that couldn’t get their kids to school as they bounced between temporary homes and shelters. To illuminate and verify their stories, we asked chronically absent young people and their families for every school record they had at home.

a) Individual students and their families may give you access to their school records, but they aren’t granting informed consent unless you are completely transparent. From the first meeting, we gave youth and their families power to decide whether to work with us.

We did our best to answer every question posed by young people and their families.

We gave people every opportunity to change their minds and withdraw from the project.

We readily accepted any decision because we genuinely got an education from whatever contact we had and whatever they chose to share with us.

b) Even if young people and their families are completely willing, you still must reckon in conferences with your editors and in your own heart whether telling a person’s story will do him or her good.

We try to stay in touch with the youth and families we profile. We’ve learned through those subsequent conversations that even the most challenged people find it’s an empowering experience to stand up and tell their story.


Covering schools is most of all about being in them. Young people will blow your socks off. Classrooms are amazing places. Crisscrossing the state to probe the cost-benefits and societal consequences of early-grades attendance strategies, we encountered stories and people we never expected, and scenes that stayed deep in our readers’ hearts. We hope what we learned is useful to you.