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Claudio Sanchez: ‘I Saw Myself’ in Stories of Children Whose Struggles Are Overlooked

Longtime NPR Education Report Accepts EWA Lifetime Achievement Prize

Photo credit: EWA

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Here’s the full text of the speech longtime National Public Radio reporter Claudio Sanchez delivered after receiving the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Prize from the Education Writers Association. The prize was created in memory of longtime Baltimore education journalist Mike Bowler, who died in 2018.

Sanchez accepted the award at EWA’s 72nd National Seminar in Baltimore on May 8, 2019. 

“Longevity should be its own reward but this day, for me, is very special. Thank you, EWA.

First and foremost, this award honors Mike Bowler, a remarkable journalist and extraordinary human being, a man I never had the privilege of meeting. Second, I can think of several, longtime education reporters who are as deserving, if not more, of this award — John Merrow comes to mind. And third, I would not be receiving this honor without the support of my family – Mariateresa, my wife, our son Luis Alberto, and Bianca our daughter – and of course, the support of National Public Radio, my employer for 30 years. [NPR is] a news organization renowned for its journalistic excellence, the caliber of its reporters, producers and editors, especially my colleagues on NPR’s education team.

Every journalist here approaches the education beat differently, so I don’t pretend to speak for any of you. But allow me a few minutes to reflect on what 30 years on the beat taught me. It boils down to seven lessons.

Lesson One

I think that in our search for compelling stories, we sometimes skim over a fundamental truth about our public education system: That for all its flaws and shortcomings, it’s a system of second, third, fourth and fifth chances. [It’s] a system that allows struggling students – young and old – to fulfill their possible lives, to reinvent themselves if and when they decide to do so.

‘Reinvention’ is the genius of American public education, something that we take for granted and that most people don’t hear or read about often enough.

Lesson Two

Sometimes we become unwitting purveyors of a kind of ‘tit-for-tat’ journalism that clarifies little and serves no one. Looking back, I remember coming away from a story with this lingering feeling, that if only I could report and write it all over again, the story would have been better. But it’s easy, of course, to make excuses, to blame an unrealistic deadline or limited air time. I did that a lot. Just ask my editors.

Lesson Three

We must not allow our stories to be misconstrued in support of political and ideological agendas that hurt kids. Because when we do, we are complicit in their failure.

In other words, we must have no role in giving equal weight to discredited policies or practices. Our job is to expose them for what they are. This year’s award-winning stories are a terrific example of that essential  task.

Lesson Four

We all know that education, as a political issue, can be used as a blunt instrument to pummel and discredit an adversary. Especially in today’s jarring, toxic discourse — if we can call it that, “discourse.”

School choice. Education funding. The achievement gap. The preparation of teachers. Immigrant kids. Safe schools, college access. Segregation by race, ethnicity, income or language. You name it. These are challenges that should unite us rather than tear us apart because as we know all too well, it’s children and young people who ultimately suffer the consequences.

Lesson Five

Even seasoned reporters at some point have to question whether they’re truly having any impact on public policy, educators or children’s lives. We wonder if a story about a high school dropout or children who were never taught how to read changes the hearts and minds of those who are in a position to help them. We wonder whether we’re making a difference or whether we’re on some kind of treadmill, reporting the same story over and over and over again.

We tackle stories that can be heartbreaking because we desperately want to wake people up. We want our stories to matter. We want our audience to have a deeper understanding of the complexities and urgency of what it takes to truly educate and support not just vulnerable kids, but every child, only to realize that with few exceptions, education stories are not a priority in the typical news cycle.

Sure, the latest school shooting horrifies us, like the one in Colorado yesterday. But sooner than later, we will all move on to the next story, the next shooting. Maybe Parkland was different. Who knows?

A teachers’ strike or cheating scandal may present us with an opportunity to raise crucial questions about ill-conceived, misguided policies. But these stories fade too. Or worse, they fall on deaf ears.

And that, to me, is stupefying because what is it we hear when elections roll around? “Education is one of our nation’s most pressing issues. Children, after all, are the future.” But we have to wonder: Do Americans really believe it, in leaving no child behind? I, for one, have my doubts.

Lesson Six

Not long after I started on this beat, I realized that an education reporter’s consolation perhaps is when a reader or listener calls you out of the blue because they were so moved by an eight-year-old’s unspoken plea for a better school. A better teacher. A better future. Just know that there are people you will reach who want to help but may not know how.

In my personal view, someone somewhere has solved some our most serious problems on a small scale. But real reform is not about systemic change. It’s not about rescuing an entire generation of children. It’s about rescuing one child at a time.

Finally, Lesson Seven

Let’s be honest. Kids’ interests usually take a back seat to adult agendas. Too many adults are prone to give up on children because of how they look, dress, speak or behave. It’s wrong and yet so easy to see struggling and troubled students as “bad” or “dumb,” which is why some schools neglect and warehouse them. They are, in adults’ eyes, a low test score, a discipline problem, the result of bad parenting, a lost cause. Or at best, an “inconvenience.”

So, you might ask: “Claudio: How could you have spent 30 years on the education beat and not feel like you were pounding your head against a wall?” Well, the bruises have healed nicely, although I confess that at times, I thought of doing something else for a living.

But then I would find a story that would pull me back. Because here’s what you need to understand about the way I tried to approach most stories. You see, I come from a part of the world where education is a lifeline for those who start life with very little – the U.S. Mexico border.

After my parents separated, my mother was convinced that as a single parent, life would be easier in the United States, even though in a strange way we felt poorer in this country than we had felt in Mexico.

Growing up in this country, the key lesson for me early on was that the process of assimilation quickly brings all immigrants to a crossroads, an identity crisis of sorts. In school, I remember desperately wanting to shed my “alienhood.” Mastering English wasn’t just a matter of survival. It was a skill with which to forge a new identity.

Lucky for me, no one understood that better than my mother, a well-read woman who relentlessly lectured her children: ”Your appearance, the way you carry yourself, the precision of your speech, will pave the way to a better life. So ignore the name-calling and labels people put on you – pocho, mojado, Hispanic, her panic, our panic,” as she often joked.

And no matter what, she would say, “You must hold onto your education because your dignity will depend on it. You are nobody’s victim.”

I took that advice to heart and grew up visualizing my future through the prism of America’s promise – the opportunity to study, learn, and succeed by working hard.

It was through that prism that I approached every story during my 30 years at NPR. It’s the reason I often saw myself in the stories I did about children and families fighting for a good school, for an opportunity, for their dignity.

In dimly lit living rooms, school parking lots and across kitchen tables, I would often look into kids’ and parents’ faces, thinking, whispering to myself: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Call it empathy, call it advocacy. Call it what you want. I simply thought of it as journalism with a purpose. An opportunity to help change people’s lives for the better. And I’d like to believe that Mike Bowler would approve.

My sincere thanks to EWA and the Bowler family for bestowing upon me this award, this honor in Mike’s name. Thank you NPR and thank you fellow journalists for your extraordinary work, for strengthening the quality of education journalism in service to children and families as exemplified by this year’s award winners and entries.”