When two education editors collaborate at the same conference, reporters get lots of story ideas, coverage tips and expert sources.
That was the case when the Education Writers Association asked Ruth Serven Smith of The Alabama Education Lab at AL.com and Eric Stirgus of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to join an EWA panel at the 2023 National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Birmingham, Alabama last month.
The two spoke about education issues they’ve been watching and reporting on in their newsrooms while engaging with journalists about everything from the Supreme Court’s rulings on race-conscious admissions and student debt to homeschooling and Grow Your Own teacher programs. They even gave specific tips to individual journalists who asked, leading to more than the education topics discussed in this blog.
Here’s an overview of the wealth of information Serven Smith and Stirgus shared. Read the transcript or listen to the session audio to get the full session experience.
1. The Battle Over DEI in the Classroom
Pushback against diversity, equity and inclusion programs is occurring in many states.
In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law banning the use of state and federal funds for DEI programs in public colleges. Around that time, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission removed references to “diversity” and “equity” from its teacher-prep program standards.
“I don’t know if any of your states have been dealing with that, but if not, that might be a good thing to sort of keep an eye out,” Stirgus advised.
- Avoid using the words and phrasing of politicians.
- Create primers to help the public understand weaponized terms, such as “critical race theory” and “woke.”
2. HBCUs After Race-Conscious College Admissions Ban
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to ban race-conscious college admissions could change who applies for college in October and how schools are planning for the next academic year, Serven Smith said.
Will students prioritize Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) over Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs)?
- Call HBCUs to see if and how they’re changing recruiting practices. “Some elite students may not be applying to the Ivy League schools because they think they have less of a chance of getting in now,” Serven Smith said. “Some of the bigger name schools, like Morehouse, Spelman and Howard, see themselves as having a great opportunity to recruit those really high-powered students as well.”
- Examine the new admissions landscape. “I also see this changing college admissions landscape as a really interesting opportunity to look at how colleges see their roles, how they are planning for enrollment, and even facilities, investments for the next 50 years,” Serven Smith said.
- Watch for enrollment changes. “HBCUs expect to see higher enrollment. How will they manage it?” Stirgus said. He said these institutions will likely need more state and federal funding.
- Look into HBCU recruiting efforts. Alabama A&M University, a public HBCU and the largest in the state, is working to recruit top African American students, especially for their engineering and teaching programs. Serven Smith recommends calling the institution’s leaders.
- Cover HBCUs like PWIs. “Think about those local institutions in the same way they think about Auburn and Alabama,” Serven Smith has often told her reporters.
- Highlight diverse student populations at HBCUs. Serven Smith has heard from a growing number of Hispanic, Asian and international Black students who are interested in attending HBCUs. “That’s a really interesting angle I’d like to see more people covering,” she said.
- Help students navigate the HBCU scholarship process. “[United Negro College Fund] just funds private schools, right? I’ve talked to people that enroll in a private school, get a UNCF scholarship, which is great. And I’ve also talked to people who’ve enrolled in a public school, applied for UNCF and then are told, ‘No, we can’t give you a scholarship.’ [Students then] rely on public aid or Pell Grants,” Serven Smith said.
Thurgood Marshall College Fund helps students attend publicly funded HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions. Reporters can help students learn about all their options and prevent confusion about scholarships.
- Keep an eye on investments in HBCUs. “Schools like Spelman are seeing significant investments, but there are others who aren’t,” Stirgus said.
3. Student Loan Debt After Supreme Court Decision
The day before the EWA session, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke to conference attendees about the effects of the Supreme Court voting down the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness plan.
“I heard him say that [the plan] would have wiped out debt for about 40% of Black students or Black borrowers,” Stirgus said. “The Biden administration is looking at some ways to help students. I know their SAVE plan is one idea, like an income debt-relief plan. And we’re seeing more colleges go toward that route individually. If you haven’t reported on that yet, that might be something that you might want to take a look at in your hometowns and states.”
- Delve into racial and gender disparities: “We know that the numbers show that Black borrowers in general are paying higher, you know, have more loan debt, particularly Black women,” Stirgus said.
- Push back against borrower stereotypes. All student loan borrowers aren’t in their 20s. “We know that actually lots of people are parents of college students,” Serven Smith said. “We know that lots of borrowers took out loans when they were 22 and now are 40 and 50 and are still paying them off.” She added AL.com’s reporting shows many borrowers are victims of a predatory system and are still victims due to inequitable wages.
- Focus on Parent PLUS loans: These loans disproportionately affect Black borrowers. “That’s why Robert Smith wound up wiping out the student loan debt for the Morehouse College class of 2019,” Stirgus said. “When he went to campus before he gave his commencement address, he ran into students and parents who were telling him that, and he was unaware. That’s a story that we should continue to keep track of and report on.”
- State organizations: For example, in his state, Stirgus recommends Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
- Southern Education Foundation: “If you’re looking for regional information or if there’s not an organization in your state and you’re in the South, I would suggest you reach out to them,” he added.
- Center for Responsible Lending
- Stirgus recommends contacting Yasmin Farahi, deputy director of state policy and senior policy counsel.
In June 2021, Serven Smith reported on an increase in Black parents homeschooling their children. When schools reopened after COVID shutdowns, she found that many of these parents kept their children at home.
“I didn’t actually set out to report on Black parents homeschooling, but I kept finding moms and dads who were Black and who were homeschooling. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is super interesting’.”
Stirgus has also followed homeschooling in his state.
“There are requirements that Georgia and what some of these homeschooling parents I met with said they’re seeing that there are parents who are trying to homeschool, but they don’t have the resources or the real clear understanding of what it takes. And so their kids are failing some statewide requirements for their kids. And so that’s been an issue that they want to see further addressed,” he explained.
Reporters can look into how these issues are addressed.
“There are co-ops, so there are African American co-ops for homeschool students where you could go if your student struggles with math, and you as a parent don’t want to teach them math,” Serven Smith said. “You can get them to a co-op and take math from somebody who’s better than you are.”
- Dig into why families are homeschooling: “I met with a group of homeschooling parents,” Stirgus said. “Some of the reasons that they were telling me that you’re seeing more of that, particularly among Black families, is because they feel the curriculum doesn’t speak to Black students. And they’re also concerned about school violence. They want to keep their kids safe.”
5. Grow Your Own Teacher Programs
School districts and states are creating Grow Your Own Programs to address teacher shortages and teacher representation, such as the lack of Black male teachers.
“They’re giving financial incentives to teachers to work, particularly in low-income schools,” Stirgus explained. “But there’s a lot more that needs to be done. I think research shows that students who are taught by teachers who look like them typically do perform better.”
Lots of compounding issues led to Grow Your Own programs, such as teachers retiring, enrollment changes, low wages for teachers and job stress and trauma, according to Serven Smith.
“I talked to an education dean recently who has 10 teacher candidates graduating this year. That is not enough,” Serven Smith said. “Grow Your Own programs are really interesting. I think a lot of school districts are turning to those partially out of desperation, somewhat, especially in rural communities.”
- Example Programs: Alabama A&M is specifically sending Black male teachers to a Huntsville school district for its M.A.L.E program. “I’m interested to see what success for that looks like,” Serven Smith said.
- Recruitment and Retention: Teacher turnover is higher for teachers of color (19%) compared to white teachers (15%) due to issues with placement, expectations, and hostile working conditions. For teachers of color, those who are Black have one of the highest turnover rates, with Black males leaving more than their peers.“A big problem is schools will recruit teachers and then not spend any time retaining them,” Serven Smith said.
- Reporting to Recreate: The education team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed three first-year teachers through their entire school year. “Two of the three are leaving. There were a variety of reasons to do so. But [it] just speaks to that larger issue,” Stirgus said.
Questions to Ask School Districts:
- If there’s a local program in place, ask for success numbers.
- How are program leaders measuring success?
- How long is the tenure of most teachers in the program?
- How many teachers, if they’re recruited to a high-poverty district, stay in the district?
6. Student Discipline
- “I’m sure that there’s a group out there that’s monitoring [student discipline], so try to find them and use them in your work,” Stirgus said.
7. Decline in Black College Enrollment
8. School Dress Codes
- Investigate whether dress codes are discriminatory. “Students at Lakeside High School in DeKalb County, Georgia, found: While people of color make up 68% of the student population, they represent 80% of dress-coded students. DeKalb this school year has updated its dress code to address some of the concerns,” according to Stirgus. “Students called them out last year and said that dress codes were discriminatory against students of color and against girls.”
- Browse data, research and reports. A 2022 GAO report last year urged the U.S. Department of Education to provide more guidance on dress codes. “The federal government doesn’t have a direct say in whether local schools implement dress codes, but it can offer guidance,” Stirgus said.
9. Special Education
- “IEPs and special education are hot topics. We also know that just statistically, the majority of students identified as students with disabilities under IDEA are students of color,” Serven Smith said.
10. Early Childhood Education
- “[Parents] want to know how long they have to pay for child care, and they really want to know if pre-K is enrolling younger students,” Serven Smith said.
“They want to know how to get there. They want to know what’s safe. They want to know which facilities have been reported for violations. They want to know how come my daycare is closing all the time? It’s because there’s not enough workers,” Serven Smith said. “So those stories go a long way. And if you can get the angle right, they reach a lot of people.”