BEHIND THE SCENES with Linda Lutton

You’ve been covering education for over a decade, why has this beat been so important to you?

First of all, the education beat is incredibly varied. There’s politics, money, corruption, there are fights over race and religion. And then there are stories about how little kids learn math and about chess teams and learning Shakespeare. Schools really reflect our nation’s sense of itself and its values, so I constantly feel like I am holding up that proverbial mirror for society to look at itself. The stakes are inherently high in education stories, and everybody knows it - you’re talking about children, and about the country’s future, and about who we are as a country. School is also a really important shared experience; everybody went to school, so people have a connection to stories about education that they don’t automatically have to other topics.

How did you formulate your essential question about public school: Is it true that no matter who you are, or what neighborhood you call home, you can make it? And how much did you know about the answer before heading into Miss Hathorne’s 4th grade class?

I reported this story during a Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting, which gave me access to classes at Columbia University in New York. So for the fall 2014 semester I was reading and talking with some of the nation’s most important education experts about the empirical answer to the question of how much socio-economic status matters for educational outcomes. (I’d spend part of every week in New York and the other part in Chicago schools, including Penn.) Some of the newest research on this question was actually being worked on while I was on my fellowship.

When I began this project, I was very aware of graphs that show what every education reporter in the country knows: the more low-income kids in a school, the worse its test scores. Year after year news organizations publish these graphs, but they had really begun to bother me. The graphs fundamentally conflict with what we tell ourselves as Americans—that no matter where you come from, you can make it. And that thinking is actually underlying our school policy.

During the fellowship I posed a lot of other questions to myself: Has this trend changed over time? (Yes, socio-economic status appears to be more predictive today of how well children will do in school than it has been in recent decades past). Do all countries see this trend? (Broadly, yes, though in some countries your socio-economic status is far less predictive of how you’ll do in school than it is in the U.S. Researchers have said kids are much more likely to achieve the American Dream in Canada than they are in the U.S., for instance). Do we have more schools “beating the odds” than we have in the past? (I found no evidence to suggest we do, even though we hear a lot in the news about schools beating the odds.) I also bumped into ideas I hadn’t considered before—like whether we should define “equal educational opportunity” as something that extends far beyond just schools and school equity.

So throughout my time at Penn, I was also studying the big picture. I never felt like Penn or any other single school would completely illustrate this, so I looked for ways to introduce these bigger concepts through the story of Room 205.

Why did you choose Penn to study the question of the impact of poverty on educational success? How much access did they give you to the school, students, teachers? Did this relationship change over the school year? If so, how did you handle that?

I was at Penn on the first day of school, September 2014. It was one of a number of schools I was interested in. I was “speed dating” schools at the time, trying to find a high-poverty school that would be a good place to settle in and report for a whole year. I was looking for a typical high-poverty school—so not the superstar “beating the odds!” schools you hear about sometimes, and not a school that would be considered the lowest scoring either. The mayor was at Penn that first day, touting rising test scores, which I liked. And then of course schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett laid out so beautifully exactly what I wanted to write about—telling kids during that first-day-of-school assembly that “no matter where you come from or what neighborhood you call home, you can do it!" It was great to have that articulated so clearly from the city’s leaders. It was exactly what I was there to look at.

I visited the fourth grade that day—which I really liked, right away. I thought Ms. Hathorne was a sympathetic teacher—not a perfect teacher, not a savior teacher, but a very human teacher. I liked her sense of humor, which is important in radio. What really convinced me that Penn was a good place to be reporting was when I started digging into the history of Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived across the street. That’s when I understood that I could get to everything I wanted to wrestle with - even my really big-picture questions about poverty - from this one school.

In terms of my relationships at the school, yes, those did change as the year went on. At one point, Ms. Hathorne asked me not to come back to class until testing was over. I can understand where she was coming from — I don’t think I’d want someone shadowing me at work all day. There were still months of school left at that point—but that pushed me to find other ways to hang out with the fourth graders—at recess, lunch, art, and at their homes or on their blocks.

You place us right in Room 205, and the school as a whole, but we meet very few official experts, or hear few statistics along the way. What was your thinking behind these choices?

This was intentional. As I mentioned, I was reading a lot, meeting with education experts and also King historians. I was very aware of the statistics. But I really wanted the entire story to be told from Room 205, bounded by the world of the fourth graders. There’s no place in the story that the fourth graders haven’t seen or been to. I really came to appreciate that frame, especially since I’m covering a topic that is so huge. I hope this is an example of what Alex Kotlowitz talks about “the bigness of the small story.” I think the research and statistics were essential to this piece. Without that, this would be a story about what happened during one year at one school in one poor neighborhood. I hope instead that it’s a story about much larger phenomena - historical and structural dynamics of race and class, our nation’s approach (or lack thereof) to poverty and poor communities, and how our own well-meaning beliefs about the power of education to overcome poverty conspire to keep poor kids poor, and their schools under constant attack.

When the 4th graders are about to take their standardized tests, you witness the teachers reviewing the test booklet. Can you talk about the considerations that went into how you presented this in the doc? What was the response from listeners? Has Penn suffered any consequences?

Yes, those scenes I think are a big part of the reason this piece was so hard for me to put together. I can’t think of another instance where a reporter—either in print or radio—captures this sort of thing live, in progress. I was taping, I was taking pictures. This was clearly the sexiest thing I had captured in months of reporting. And I think the natural tendency of a reporter and of the narrative itself would be to amplify those scenes. I resisted doing that. The scenes come 46 minutes into the 57-minute piece. I felt obligated to report what I had seen—and I do feel that those scenes are definitely part of my story. As I say in the piece, this is part of what we get from the school policies we’ve designed and the broader context in which kids go to school.

Many people have been struck by the writing around that part of the story—which I love, but I can’t take credit for.

"These things I saw… the teachers looking at the test ahead of time, kids using reference materials during a test …they’re not allowed, and… they’re wrong. They’re also the first things I’ve told you about in this whole story that would ever make a news headline….

But now, imagine all the things I’ve told you about that would never get a headline. That would never get our attention. All you wouldn’t know about Penn."

Ben Calhoun (WBEZ Vice President of Content and Programming) suggested that language in a group edit, and I instantly appropriated it. It’s exactly what I was going for, it perfectly sums up the resistance I felt to highlighting these scenes.

Listeners have had very mixed feelings about the fact that we reported the testing improprieties. Some strongly disagree with the decision. I absolutely felt conflicted about reporting something that could potentially hurt Dr. Ollie or Ms. Hathorne; it was their openness that made this story possible in the first place. We were told by Chicago Public Schools that the district is investigating the testing incidents. We know Dr. Ollie was contacted by her higher-ups about it. We will continue to follow what happens.

Is there a particular piece of tape – I assume you collected hundreds of hours worth - that ended up on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have found a spot for?

Yes, hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape. Yes, there was a whole storyline I left out that I wish I could have worked in. It has to do with the Great Migration, the fact that the North Lawndale neighborhood in the late 1950s and 1960s became home to more than 100,000 African American migrants from the South, looking for a better life. They were really pulled North by the promise of the American Dream. When King came to North Lawndale, these were the people he was living among.

Today, in Lawndale and neighborhoods in every major U.S. city, we are seeing what some are calling the Reverse Migration—black people leaving major Northern central cities, either for the suburbs or the South. I would love to have told the story of Donta, a fourth grader who lived next door to Chelsee. The first time I met Donta’s mom she said something like, “Hi, how are you doing? We’re trying to move from here.” The violence made her fear for her children’s lives. One day I came to the block and all the little kids ran up to tell me that Donta was gone. He’d moved. I caught up with his family - and I could see how painful the move was for him. He missed the block, missed his friends.

I have some really beautiful tape of a summer night when I brought Donta and his younger brothers back to their old street to play for a while. When we leave, I’m driving about 1 mile an hour down the alley, and all the little kids from the block are running alongside the car, their little hands reaching for Donta’s hands through the open car window to say good-bye. I still can hear his voice that night, his laugh—which was pure glee. For me, it brought home the unfairness of the bind people find themselves in - with deep love for their community but untenable economic, crime and policing conditions forcing them out. That scene to me was really symbolic of this broader abandonment of the Promised Land. And I think it raises questions for our country of what people will find in the communities they’re moving into. Will we repeat history?

What has been the response from educators and parents?

The response has been incredible. Many, many teachers have written to say how authentic the story feels to them, and how closely it captured their experience. Even teachers from very different contexts have written, like one who teaches in rural New Mexico, the state with the highest childhood poverty rate in the nation. “As a teacher at the public school, I felt bad about myself every single day of my last 5 years there because even though I taught bright, wonderful fourth and fifth graders from rich cultures, they were not represented in the testing culture and their strengths were not recognized much less valued by the assessments. So test after test, year after year, we failed.”

My favorite parent letter came from a mom of twin fourth graders in San Francisco. She wrote, “Thank you for reminding me... that I, as a parent and community member, have a continued responsibility to be an activist for my neighbors, my schools.”

Are you still in touch with any of the 4th graders, now that they’re in 6th grade?

I kind of can’t believe they’re sixth graders already! I’m still in touch with all the kids in the story (plus other fourth graders who didn’t make it in). There’s one big exception--Kelsey was moved from his foster family at the end of fourth grade, and unfortunately I lost touch with him. Kareem is still in family foster care with an aunt. He now attends a no-excuses charter school on the South Side, where his family says he gets pretty frequent demerits. Chelsee still lives on the same block, right around the corner from where her cousin was killed. She’s still bold and opinionated, still really concerned with what’s fair. I’m waiting for her to become a Black Lives Matter activist. Jamariya is still into video games; last time I saw him he was playing a farming game on his XBox—his character had dreadlocks and was running around a field of carrots or turnips or something.