United States Project

Tampa Bay Times‘ investigation is a model for how to report on school resegregation

August 19, 2015

The resegregation of public schools around the country, and the often willful failure of communities to maintain the gains of integration, is a national story. As Nikole Hannah-Jones reported for ProPublica and The Atlantic last year, federal officials and the courts have stepped back from enforcing integration mandates in many places, sometimes returning control to indifferent local officials. The result: pockets of resegregation, a rise in so-called “apartheid schools,” and a legacy of neglect that may be felt for decades.

But this is also a local story, one that needs to be told by local papers around the country, with a focus on local children and the adults who shape their education. One of those papers, the Tampa Bay Times, rolled out an impressive investigation into the resegregation of five elementary schools in Florida’s Pinellas County this week, and journalists around the country should take a look.

I spoke with the reporting team at the Times—education beat reporters Cara Fitzpatrick and Lisa Gartner, I-Team reporter Michael LaForgia, data director Adam Playford, and data reporter Nathaniel Lash—to gather some tips other journalists can draw on.

The most interesting piece of advice they had was something an editor told Gartner early in the year-long investigation.

“So many people look at stories like this and go to the academic why,” she said. “They go to the research or call the professors. He said, go to the official why. Who did this and why?”

The fact that the Times was able to hold accountable the decision-makers who gave up on hundreds of children elevated this investigation from an interesting look at data to a damning indictment of local leaders. This is the lead of the main story:

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In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

First they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelmingly poor and black.

Then they broke promises of more money and resources.

Then—as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse—the board stood by and did nothing.

The Times rotated Fitzpatrick and Gartner back and forth onto the I-Team to work with LaForgia, Playford, and Lash on the data and the on-the-ground reporting. In addition to looking at test scores, poverty rates, and racial demographics at the schools, the reporters went through years of school board minutes to document the broken promises made to the families of children in the five schools, the funding failures, and the many red flags and cries for help that were ignored. Then they hit the streets.

“Everyone involved hit the pavement, making sure what we were seeing in the data was what people were seeing on the ground,” Gartner said.

The investigation also includes impressive interactive graphics created by Lash. Playford, his boss, told me the feature was the results of months of work, not just on the graphics, but on mining the data.

“Nathaniel has been working on this project since he was an intern—we hired him pretty quickly,” Playford said. “He knew the material because he was analyzing the data. You need someone who knows the material and is invested in the project. He was like a reporter on this.”

The team spent lots of time exploring the typical excuses made for the failures of schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. The data showing how the five Pinellas schools are such outliers, even when compared to other predominantly black and impoverished schools in Florida, is striking and goes far to rebut the platitudes that there’s nothing the schools can do to fix society’s problems.

The Times has more coming, LaForgia told me, with part two scheduled to run Sunday. It’s based on years of police reports and drills down to the violence at the five schools.

The investigation has already gotten noticed nationally, prompted local officials to promise change, and spurred a call for a federal investigation. And it has ignited some spirited online discussions.

Hopefully it will also prompt other journalists to take a hard look at the schools in their own communities.

Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.