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Notebook celebrates 25 years of education journalism

More than 250 people attended the event at the National Museum of American Jewish History to mark the occasion.

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

On Tuesday,we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and thanked the many supporters who have made our decades of nonprofit journalism possible. The event was held from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on June 4 at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall.

Parents, educators and activists joined together 25 years ago to create the Notebook as an in-depth, independent news source on the Philadelphia public schools. The 12-page print edition, without any ads and produced entirely with volunteer labor, came out four times a year.

The banner headline of the Spring 1994 edition? “Unfair State funding for schools challenged.” One of its front-page bylines was that of a young activist named Helen Gym, who is now an at-large member of City Council. On a page devoted to student voices, there was a poem by an Olney High School student called “Violence #1” and a 5th grader’s account of working with classmates to make a miniature hockey rink.

“These grassroots experts are the people who must unify around a shared vision for better schools,” declared the first editorial, called “Problems and promise.” The Notebook, it said, hopes to play a part in shaping that vision and providing some of the tools to achieve it.

Over the decades, the organization has grown into a daily online news service, while continuing to publish a print edition that is delivered free to all Philadelphia public schools and to libraries and community organizations. While changing with the times, the Notebook remains committed to providing a voice for parents, students, teachers, and other members of the community who are working for quality and equity in Philadelphia’s public schools.

Several stories over the years triggered major changes. In 2002, a piece on the sharp increase in kindergarten suspensions with the advent of “zero tolerance” discipline policies – 33 kindergartners had been suspended in the first 10 weeks of school – drew national attention. Advocates condemned the practice, experts weighed in that it was harmful to young students, and local authorities agreed that the approach was not wise or effective. In exposing this issue, the Notebook was ahead of the game. Since then, the District has adopted a policy that bans the use of suspensions for students up to 3rd grade.

Notebook reporting later prompted a statewide investigation of adult cheating on standardized tests. In its partnership with WHYY/NewsWorks, the Notebook asked the state Department of Education whether its testing company had ever reviewed test results for statistical anomalies that could help identify cheating. In response, we received a forensic analysis of the 2009 results that had been inexplicably buried for two years. It showed patterns in some schools of improbable wrong-to-right erasures on the PSSA, the state’s standardized test. As a result, test security was increased and several educators were disciplined.

The Notebook was an early partner in the citywide dropout prevention initiative that became known as Project U-Turn. It started at a time when barely half of the District’s high school students were graduating in four years. The fall 2005 edition provided eye-opening data – for example, that there were 52,000 young Philadelphians (ages 16-24) neither in school nor employed. The reporting helped inspire school staff, the central office, and outside organizations to expand outreach to students who stopped attending. Since then, the District has provided more alternative options for dropouts and near-dropouts. And the citywide graduation rate has improved: About two-thirds of students in District schools now earn diplomas within six years. New reporting is looking at students’ post-secondary experiences.

More recently, the Notebook aggressively covered the massive school closings of 2012, highlighting the District’s reliance on an outside consultant to consider efficiency above all else and only consult school communities later. In 2017, we started reporting on deteriorating building conditions and safety hazards in schools.

In the fall of 2016 we produced an edition called “SRC: Should it stay or go?” Our ongoing coverage kept the focus on public demands for the dissolution of the School Reform Commission and the return of city schools to local control after 17 years under the state. More recently, we have been taking a closer look at the trends and issues facing teaching in Philadelphia, including the steady erosion in the proportion of teachers of color.

As we enter the next chapter in the Notebook’s history, you can be certain that the core values of social justice, equity, public accountability, and journalistic excellence will not go away.

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