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Investigative journalism can shake up a school system

Notebook stories have led to policy changes, government inquiries, and turnover at the top.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook was created 20 years ago as an in-depth, independent news source serving a grassroots audience. Its initial focus was on providing information to people concerned about Philadelphia public education so they could help reshape and improve the schools.

But as it grew and became widely read, its journalism more aggressively kept watch on decision-makers. Several stories have triggered major changes.

A 2009 Inquirer editorial called the Notebook “an effective watchdog striving to hold schools and administrators accountable.” Notebook reporting later helped expose secret dealings that led to the resignation of a School Reform Commission chairman and prompted a statewide investigation of adult cheating on standardized tests.

Here are four Notebook investigations that directly impacted how things are done in Philadelphia schools.

1. Kindergarten suspensions

The Notebook made its first splash in the national press in 2002. The winter issue highlighted what looked like a sharp increase in suspensions of young students in the wake of a new “zero tolerance” discipline policy.

Our finding that 33 Philadelphia kindergartners had been suspended in the first 10 weeks of the school year, compared to only one in the same period a year earlier, was picked up by national news media including the New York Times, CNN, and ABC. The issue’s “Eye on Special Education” column highlighted a kindergartner with cerebral palsy and developmental delays who had already received two long suspensions.

We soon discovered that the District did not accurately track kindergarten suspensions, and so the full extent of the increase was unknown. But as the Notebook story went viral, child advocates condemned the practice of suspending such young children, and changes were made.

Local authorities agreed that excluding a kindergartner from school for disciplinary reasons was rarely wise or effective, and that 5-year-olds don’t need that stigma on their academic record. “We are saying for the District’s youngest children, a variety of steps must be taken before you even consider exclusion as an appropriate intervention,” a District spokesperson announced. Among other changes, officials provided more training for elementary school principals on age-appropriate responses to young children with behavior issues.

2. Dropout prevention

The Notebook was an early partner in the citywide dropout prevention initiative that became known as Project U-Turn. It was not well known that barely half of the District’s high school students were graduating in four years. The fall 2005 edition on the topic provided some eye-opening data – for example, that there were 52,000 young Philadelphians (ages 16-24) who were neither in school nor employed.

The edition was a first foray in a multiyear effort to raise awareness of the problem. The Notebook has since produced an edition annually, monitoring progress at boosting the graduation rate.

At the time, District officials said that what particularly drew their attention was story after story about students who felt invisible when they dropped out. “They didn’t send me any letters. They didn’t call me,” was how one former Gratz High School student described what happened when she stopped going to school in 11th grade.

The Notebook’s reporting helped inspire school staff, the central office, and outside organizations to expand outreach to students who stopped attending. Since then, the citywide graduation rate has improved: About two-thirds of students in District schools now earn diplomas within six years. Now, we are trying to track the next step by pushing for meaningful data about postsecondary outcomes, such as how many graduates enroll in college and stay there.

3. Conflicts of interest

In the winter of 2011, the Notebook was persistent in questioning the closed-door dealings of top District officials who appeared to be subverting an SRC vote – awarding a charter school management contract to a company with ties to an SRC member and a state legislator.

Notebook connections helped parents at King High School to expose what turned out to be a scandalous series of backroom maneuvers involving SRC Chair Robert Archie and State Rep. Dwight Evans. Our reporting on efforts by Archie and Evans to undercut the SRC’s decision and redirect the contract to their ally, Foundations Inc., prompted a city ethics investigation. The inquiry confirmed exactly what we had uncovered.

The mounting controversy cast an ethical shadow over the SRC. Archie and three other commissioners soon stepped down and were replaced. The new SRC members appointed in fall 2011 pledged a commitment to transparency.

The Inquirer later described the findings this way: “State Rep. Dwight Evans and Robert L. Archie Jr., former chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, waged a relentless Godfather-style campaign to ensure that a New Jersey nonprofit would win a contract to manage Martin Luther King High School and, when that failed, pressured the Atlanta company that won the contract to back out.”

4. Standardized test cheating

In its reporting partnership with WHYY/NewsWorks, the Notebook broke another big education story in 2011, and its fallout continues. We asked the state Department of Education whether its testing company had ever reviewed test results for statistical anomalies that could help identify any cheating. In response, we received a forensic analysis of the 2009 results that had been inexplicably buried for two years. It showed evidence of widespread cheating in schools across the state on the PSSA, the state’s standardized test.

Anecdotal evidence of adult cheating on the PSSA had been mounting as the test took on increasingly high stakes for schools and educators. The Inquirer had produced an in-depth account of cheating at a local middle school. But the statistical analysis, especially suspicious erasure patterns, flagged more than 200 schools statewide, both charters and traditional public schools.

The Notebook’s resulting July 2011 story was picked up by the New York Times. An Associated Press version ran in major dailies nationwide. It triggered a series of actions by the state. Another forensic analysis of results from 2010 and 2011 found more suspicious erasure patterns. New security protocols were implemented, and scores plunged at many schools.

Investigations of individual schools and districts, including Philadelphia, followed. The Notebook is still struggling to get reports from the state and District for the more than 50 city schools investigated by one or the other.

This spring, however, the story took a stunning turn when a state grand jury report led to the arrest of five Philadelphia educators from Cayuga Elementary School.

The Notebook continues to investigate what happened and why – and to pay attention to significant decisions that continue to be made using what appears to be suspect test score data. The cheating coverage earned accolades for the Notebook and NewsWorks, most notably in the Education Writers Association’s national education reporting awards.

Philadelphia’s City Paper recognized the Notebook in its 2011 Big Vision issue, writing, “The nonprofit Notebook is leveraging both the old-school tradition of public-interest journalism and a new model of partnerships.”

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