The holiday weeks can be slow-going on the education beat. Here are a few ideas for turning those spruce pines into evergreen stories:
Moonlighting Teachers: During the height of the teacher walkouts last spring, multiple stories looked at the impact of low pay and how individual educators often worked second jobs to help support themselves and their families. In addition to working evenings, weekends, and during the long summer break, teachers have long supplemented their incomes through holiday retail work.
In a 2016 report, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 16 percent of the nation’s teachers held down second jobs. Earlier this year, the National Education Association profiled some of those educators, including a middle school teacher who also works 25 hours a week as a dental hygienist.
But during this holiday season, a good bet for finding these seasonal workers is to hit the mall. Start at the women’s clothing stores, which often offer special seasonal employment, and special discounts to teachers. You won’t want to bother anyone while they’re on their shift, so bring plenty of business cards with you.
Who’s Coming, Who’s Staying in Higher Ed? Did you know some postsecondary institutions admit a second wave of freshmen starting in the second semester? The move is intended to capture tuition from students who are really passionate about attending a particular school, and are willing to delay their start to get in.
In the past, some critics have noted that these late start dates allow universities to circumvent data collection for national college rankings around the quality of the school’s application pool, and the selectivity of its programs.
It’s worth asking the public information officer at the colleges you cover a number of questions. How many freshmen are coming to campus in January? How do these students differ from those admitted for the fall? What is the school doing to integrate them into a campus where they may not be able to start important course sequences immediately, and where the fall-start freshmen have already made friends?
While you’re at it, you might want to ask about programs and services for current students who don’t have homes to go back to when the dorms close. There’s a greater awareness these days about housing and food insecurity among college students, and it’s important to keep the spotlight on that vulnerable population amid debates over the rising cost of higher ed. Take a look at the remarkable “Hungry to Learn” profiles by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Julia Schmaltz.
For another evergreen story, consider researching international student recruitment at the colleges you cover. As Politico’s Kim Hefling reported, there’s been a slump in foreign students choosing U.S. colleges since President Trump’s election in 2016, according to national data. Many colleges have been raising revenue by recruiting wealthy foreigners willing to pay high tuition. But if that revenue is drying up, how will colleges make up the funding gap?
Be the Elf on the Shelf/Mensch on the Bench. The holiday break is also a good time to catch up on your watchdog reporting – specifically, to file all those overdue open records requests.
Looking for inspiration? Lauren FitzPatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times offers a master class in digging deep into district documents, which was how she exposed a massive scheme to cover up facilities neglect in the city’s public schools. (You can hear my EWA Radio interview with her here.)
In a similar vein, the Philadelphia Inquirer team mined open records for their Toxic City/Sick Schools series. Reporter Barbara Laker tapped teachers as essential sources for the project, and then shared harrowing details of crumbling walls, mold, and other hazardous classroom conditions.
Need some more ideas? Take a look at MuckRock to see what other folks have been asking for lately from local school districts and state education departments. Among recent requests: information on sexual education curricula; campus active-shooter policies; and lead testing of school water sources.
Don’t be intimidated if you’re a newcomer to FOIA. A good place to start is our Reporter Guide to Obtaining Public Records. At our 2017 National Seminar, we gathered together award-winning education journalists who shared Five Tips For Investigative Reporting. And in our recent member spotlight on Tawnell Hobbs, a longtime investigative reporter now with The Wall Street Journal, advises to “always get the data.”
Need more story ideas or career advice? I’m here for you! Find out about EWA’s Public Editor one-on-one support. It’s free and confidential.