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The Lens’ Charter School Reporting Corps is holding New Orleans schools accountable

By recruiting freelancers into an organized corps with a targeted mission, The Lens has improved oversight and accountability on charter school boards.

When Hurricane Katrina and failed levees battered New Orleans in 2005, one of the most far-reaching impacts was to the city’s public schools. With more than 100 campuses damaged or destroyed — and having earned a less-than-stellar reputation pre-Katrina — what was once a single school system was broken apart into two major entities and dozens of new charter schools.

Most New Orleans children now attend public charter schools — whose independent governance structures pose a real challenge to journalists. Rather than a single superintendent, a single school board, and a single bureaucracy to cover, they now have more than 40. (And counting.)

“It’s impossible for one or two education beat reporters for the local newspapers to get to all of these board meetings,” explained Rebecca Catalanello, charter schools editor at The Lens, the New Orleans online news nonprofit.

In its short life, The Lens has managed to do what local newspapers could not: cover all levels of this new education world. In 2011, there were 65 charter schools in New Orleans governed by 45 school boards, and none of them were being regularly covered by the local media. Now, 95 percent of charter school board meetings are covered by reporters working for The Lens. Covering school board meetings might not be the sexiest kind of journalism, but in New Orleans as elsewhere, people act differently when there’s a reporter sitting a few feet away.

“The Lens, by the fact of being present in charter school board meetings, brings a greater focus around the work of boards,” said Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. “There’s actually now a consequence, a possibility that your boards actions could be written up in a less than positive way. As a charter school, you are held accountable in ways that aren’t just about your academics…overall, you are supposed to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

A massive reporting need

The news ecosystem of New Orleans is in flux. The Times-Picayune slashed its newsroom and cut to only three days of printing a week (though it has since, confusingly, returned to producing some kind of print product daily). The Advocate in Baton Rouge debuted a New Orleans edition in September, and has recruited reporters and subscribers from The Times-Picayune. But even when the local daily was at full strength, there was still a void in education coverage.

“Under the old system, you had one major school board that oversaw all the schools, and the education reporter from the Times-Picayune would go to the meeting. But in the post-Katrina landscape, we don’t really have time anymore — it’s a scramble,” said Catalanello.

The Lens launched the Charter School Reporting Corps in September 2011. It has been a scramble for the community members who make up the school boards, who were not used to seeing a reporter’s face at meetings. Many were unfamiliar with laws regulating school governance until The Lens started reporting on them. School boards are expected to comply with state laws designed to ensure transparency and accountability; they must open their meetings to the community, publicize the meeting time and place well ahead of time, and make budgets publicly available before voting on them, for instance.

Catalanello recalled how, prior to joining The Lens as an editor, she sat in on a meeting at one charter school, where she confronted the systemic dysfunction head-on. “It was probably the most complicated meeting that I have ever covered. They were dealing with incredibly complex contracts that they had to approve, and it didn’t appear that all of the board members had actually read all of the documents that they were voting on,” she said.

So how did The Lens tackle all those meetings? With funding from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Knight Foundation (The Lens is a two-time winner of Knight’s Community Information Challenge), and a number of private donors, the site was able to hire over a dozen freelance reporters. Reporters are paid $50 to attend monthly school board meetings and file a story on the proceedings within 24 hours. Lens editor Steve Beatty estimated that it costs about $29,000 to fund the Reporting Corps, not counting the charter schools editor’s salary.

Many of the Lens’ freelancers have had little journalistic experience, and the editors periodically hold training sessions to bring them up to speed on the protocol for covering school board meetings. “It was designed to find college students who are up-and–coming, who want to get professional bylines and do real work, and it helps us identify the next generation of strong journalists,” Beatty said.

One of The Lens’ biggest successes, Beatty said, came when reporters found that school boards were not complying with Louisiana’s Local Government Budget Act, which stipulates that school boards must make their budgets publicly available for 10 days before they can be passed in a public hearing.

“When we looked into the school boards, we found that very few of them were following that procedure, and in fact, many of them hadn’t even heard of it. So we wrote a story that said just that. The next year, we wrote a story saying that more schools were complying,” said Beatty. “Now we’re on our third year of paying attention to their budgets, and an even greater percentage are doing that. To us, that is a victory in terms of openness for the community, to be able to see those budgets, to comment on them if they choose to.”

(Catalanello last week left her post as charter schools editor and is joining The Times-Picayune as a health care reporter. Beatty said his staff is currently searching for a replacement editor to oversee the Reporting Corps.)

Sharing stories broadly

Beatty said that when the Charter School Reporting Corps began, the editors didn’t intend for its coverage to focus so heavily on school administration. “We kind of stumbled on this, because the basic way of covering any organization is to attend their meetings and find out how they’re spending their money,” he said. “We set the bar moderately low in terms of what we wanted to cover, because there was zero coverage before — just simply being there made a difference.”

Traffic to The Lens charter school site has more than tripled since February 2012, and unique visits to The Lens are up five-fold since February 2012, reaching a high of 39,330 in April 2013. Each charter school has its own page on The Lens, where visitors can view budgets and meeting agendas and subscribe to a mailing list to receive news updates from a specific school. Rather than send those mailing lists a link to a news story whenever something is published, The Lens sends the entire post straight to subscribers.

“A lot of parents with children who attend these schools are not particularly wired or wealthy or plugged-in. We set up something where you can subscribe to a particular school, and every time a news story is posted about that school, and it sends them the whole story — we’re not even interested in the clickthroughs,” said Beatty.

Traffic to individual school pages has also increased — visits to the page of Lycée Français, one of the most high-profile schools, are up 63 times over February 2012. The reporting corps has covered Lycée Français in depth, including stories on how the school handled public records requests, how the Lycée board once shut out the press from a meeting with parents, and how the superintendent appealed to Lycée teachers to stay at the school. The site’s charter school home page is The Lens’ second most popular point of entry to the site, behind only the homepage.

The Lens’ coverage of charter schools has led to a number of its stories being picked up by both The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. (The Lens releases its stories under a Creative Commons license.)

“The benefit of giving away our copy to others right now is that we reach a broader audience, and as a still fairly young organization, we want to be known as widely as possible. That may change in the future, We may start charging for our content, but for now the price is right for everybody — it’s free,” said Beatty.

Danielle Dreilinger, an education reporter at The Times-Picayune, said that The Lens’ stories have also been a boon to other education reporters in New Orleans. “One of the things that’s valuable about the corps is that they include all sorts of stuff — they include everything, they write everything that happens,” said Dreilinger. “I think the corps is an amazing resource. It’s so valuable, absolutely, to people in the state who want to know what’s going on, and for me as a reporter, because it means I can be more targeted in my reporting.”

Rethinking brand presentation

Not all of the reception to The Lens’ charter school coverage has been positive. When the Charter School Reporting Corps first launched, many board members — unaccustomed to press attention — went on the defensive, and Roemer Shirley said many still feel that the Reporting Corps is in the business of “gotcha” journalism. “I would like to see an opportunity to move beyond a ‘gotcha’ and hold up and highlight schools that are doing it with excellence,” she said.

In response to those concerns, The Lens changed its site’s tagline from “Investigating New Orleans and the Gulf Coast” to “Focused on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast” when the Reporting Corps launched. “We wanted to make it clear that we aren’t only an investigative newsroom,” Beatty said. “I would say that’s our primary task. But we wanted to make it clear to the school boards and principles that we weren’t just forming this corps to start investigating them, so we kind of changed our overall brand to accommodate this new program.”

“While they may feel like we’re out to get them, the fact is that they are required to govern themselves as public entities, and we are there to report on them as if they are public entities,” Catalanello said. “It’s not a joke — it’s the law.”

That said, Catalanello recognized the limitations of The Lens’ reporting. “Covering charter schools from a governance perspective is not the full story about charter schools,” she said. “We recognize the limitations of that reporting, but we’re trying to do as good a job as we can with that, and we are doing a better job today than we were a few months ago.”

                                   
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