Finding the Stories Impacted By Education Policy

Oct 10, 2012
Originally published on April 23, 2013 4:32 pm

In honor of today's Twitter Education Forum (#npredchat) at 11 a.m. (Eastern) hosted by NPR's midday-talk program Tell Me More with Michel Martin, here's a closer look at the StateImpact Florida team.

Late last year, StateImpact Florida reporters Sarah Gonzalez and John O'Connor got a tip about charter schools in the state. The reporting duo from Florida NPR Member Stations WLRN and WUSF started exploring the possible lead by doing research on these publicly funded, privately run schools - looking at numbers and talking to local education leaders.

Then O'Connor found the story when he met Tres Whitlock. At the time, the 17-year-old student had been trying to get into a charter school, hoping it would help him reach his dream of being a video game designer. However, he wasn't admitted to the school at the time, because Whitlock has cerebral palsy and needs help going to the bathroom.

O'Connor and Gonzalez discovered that Whitlock was hardly alone. The StateImpact Florida team found that 86% of the state's charter schools do not have any students classified as severely disabled, despite state and federal laws requiring charter schools to give equal access.

The Impact of Reporting
The work O'Connor and Gonzalez put into this story is impressive on its own. These two reporters are part of Florida's public media network and NPR's StateImpact project, which focuses on how a single issue and policy area in a state affect people's lives. The topic in Florida is education. But the impact of just this one story – and the entire project – is really what makes this on-air/online reporting network special.

Based in the WUSF newsroom in Tampa, O'Connor works closely with News Director Scott Finn, who explains what happened to Whitlock and charter schools after the story aired last December.

"The creative director of the video game Halo heard the story on NPR," Finn said. "He got in touch with us and asked us how to contact Tres, so he could help in some way."

This wasn't only the only result they saw from this report. Finn continues:

"A Miami-Dade school board member, who is the daughter of the mayor and has a daughter with autism, wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald," he said. "She shared her story about how her daughter was forced to leave the charter school, that the school board member helped found."

Not that we are counting, but this story earned a 2011 National Award for Education Reporting in the investigative reporting category from Education Writers of America, a 2012 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association, and a 2012 Gannet Foundation Award for Innovative Investigative Journalism in the small newsroom category from the Online Journalism Association.

The StateImpact Florida blog was also honored with 2011 National Award for Education Reporting in the journalism blogging category from Education Writers of America.

Kids Make Awesome Radio
For the entire StateImpact Florida team, having the chance to talk to and get to know those most affected by education policy is the key to their reporting.

"Our mission is to explain the impact of government policies on the lives of people in our communities," says Gonzalez, who is based in the WLRN newsroom in Miami. "It is data-driven journalism that brings policies to life because we let our audiences hear from those that are directly affected."

This means that Gonzalez and O'Connor are able to travel the state and report on all the communities in Florida.

"We are interested in telling stories that you don't always get to hear about," Gonzalez says. "To report on stories that are underreported. To hear from students themselves. And spend time with the people to understand the culture."

And, she adds, "Kids make awesome radio."

O'Connor sees similarities in this kind of journalism to the current slow food movement, focusing on taking the time to get the better product.

"This is like slow journalism," he said. "We have the time to find these people, to spend time with them, to see who makes the decisions. This is not drive-by journalism; we aren't parachuting in or cherry picking. We really spend time on the story, the students and understand their point of view."

This depth of coverage has won the praise of audiences as well.

"Lots of folks are grateful for our approach to news," says O'Connor. "Education policy is complicated, and we are able to explain things. Our audience puts a premium on clarity of explanation."

That context and explanation is really the unique service they are providing to the audience, according to Gonzalez.

"Lots of news organizations are covering education in Florida," she says. "We like to break things down and explain the impact of a proposed amendment. We are going back 10 years and 20 years, and [just last week] back to the 1800s to find out where the policy came from and why."

A Conversation for the Nation
According to Finn, this education coverage couldn't come at a better time for Florida or the nation.

"Florida is a real leader in the modern education movement," he says. "It is a bellwether state. The lessons we learn here will have an impact on education in the country."

News Director at WLRN-Miami Herald News, Dan Grech, couldn't agree more.

"The Twitter Education Forum in collaboration with Tell Me More is really about taking our journalism and joining the national conversation with those who influence and are affected by education policy in this country," he said.

With this important topic at the forefront of the national dialogue today, Grech sees how the skills that Gonzalez and O'Connor bring to the project - from storytelling, investigative reporting and social media - are so crucial to its success.

"Sarah and John are the reporters of the future," Grech said. "They are showing all of us how to work across multiple platforms and reach multiple audiences with amazing journalism. That is the future of public media."

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