Hyperlocals and School Coverage: Where’s the Big Picture?

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Hyperlocals could do a much better job covering the biggest news in their communities — the schools.

They write up contentious budget meetings, new SAT scores, enrollment ups and downs, and they do features on fundraisers, scholarship winners and high-performing athletes — all of which is worthy. But you won’t find many stories that show the big picture: What are schools doing better to help all students kindle, develop and achieve their aspirations in a diverse society?  Why, despite years of K-12 reform since the seminal 1983 report from the Reagan administration, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” are there persistent, and sometimes glaring, performance gaps, especially among students by race and economic status?  And why do these gaps exist even in affluent suburbs?

What’s happening in our schools is big news nationally, but ultimately it’s a local and neighborhood story — and it targets not only parents but everybody hyperlocals are trying to reach. Seventy-five percent of every local tax dollar goes to schools. Yet there is documented evidence that many school districts spend millions of dollars inefficiently. Bad spending decisions in these revenue-short times mean teachers are fired, classroom sizes increased and non-“basic” courses like art scrapped.

Hyperlocals should be all over the big-picture story. But from what I see, they aren’t. I browsed many sites and took a look at three that, overall, do such a terrific job covering their communities they’re often cited as models: Baristanet, ARL Now and West Seattle Blog. I looked at many education stories, admirable ones that serve the community, but what I found didn’t add up to the big picture.

Baristanet: This sassy, vigilant, seven-year-old site covers the Township of Montclair, among other communities in suburban New Jersey. Montclair has an extensive program to close the achievement gap between the township schools’ mostly high-achieving general enrollment and minority students and those in low-income families. Though Montclair is in the middle of affluent suburbs, six of its 11 schools are designated Title I (at least 40% of students receive free or reduced-price lunches). Montclair has been a pioneer nationally in minority achievement programs and is a charter member of the Minority Student Achievement Program. Its “data-driven” initiatives, carried out in a “rigorous learning environment,” have been singled out by the U.S. and New Jersey Departments of Education. Yet despite all the efforts, proficiency gaps in reading and math range from 15 to 40 and even nearly 50 points in Montclair elementary, middle and high schools, depending on the grade level. Most troubling, the widest achievement gaps are at the elementary level, where most experts say intensive achievement programs have to begin.

Baristanet, take it away.

ARLNow:  This year-old, fast-growing site has its ear close to the ground covering Arlington County, a Northern Virginia suburb of metro Washington, D.C. Arlington’s minorities, which represent 127 countries, constitute 54% of the school enrollment. The biggest minority is Hispanics, who, while down a few digits in recent years (because of Arlington’s high housing  costs), still represent more than 28%. Like Montclair, Arlington has a pioneering minority achievement program that has made significant gains in closing gaps. But, as in Montclair, wide distances remain between white students and minorities. Hispanics, blacks and the economically disadvantaged all failed to achieve adequate yearly progress in 2010 in reading, and Hispanics and the disadvantaged failed their AYP in math. The federal graduation indicator for white students is 91% but only 53% for Hispanics, 67% for blacks and 62% for the disadvantaged. After a decade of intensive achievement programs, why?

ARLNow, take it away.

West Seattle Blog: WSB is, generally, tightly plugged in to a community that has a reputation for high citizen involvement. Educationally, a big issue is the Seattle Public Schools Strategic Plan from 2008, here and updated here, but not on WSB. The update reports that the percentage of city’s 10th graders proficient in reading, writing and math declined from 2010 to 2008 and slippage in other areas, with gains in others.  West Seattle Blog does a good job covering school crowding and personnel changes, but how did 10th-grade students in West Seattle schools perform from 2008 to 2010?

West Seattle Blog, take it away.

In fairness to all hyperlocals, there is no easy, sound-byte answer to covering school performance. An accurate assessment of student achievement — whether for minorities or the general enrollment — requires more than throwing some numbers against the wall and seeing what sticks.  It requires context.

Heather Taylor, communications officer at the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association, says the best way for a site with limited editorial resources to tell the story is to put all the data out there “for the community to see,” and, through discussion and debate, reach toward a consensus on how much progress is actually being made and what more should be done to fix persistent problems. Such forums should be designed to encourage all players, including officials from the school district, to participate. Without the people who develop the achievement programs, the big picture will have empty spaces.

Presenting the big picture on schools is a big challenge, even for the best hyperlocals. But to serve their communities, news sites have to do it.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.