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Home > Publications > Quill > Gems: School stories: show & tell


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Friday, August 1, 2008
Gems: School stories: show & tell

By Jon Marshall

As the new school year draws near, we’d like to highlight some excellent stories from newspapers, television and the Web that show different ways journalists can cover education.

The class project

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Mark Johnson shadowed students in a Marquette University engineering class through the school year as they tried to build a reactor that could convert vegetable oils into fuel. Johnson’s “Green Machine” introduced readers to shirtsleeve science while telling a larger story about young people coming of age. Here he described what happened when the students performed a crucial test:

It was supposed to take 21 seconds for the liquid to drain.

On the first test, it took 24 seconds, then 21, then 50, then 27.

“Not good,” Billy said.

They peered inside the small tank. Instead of flowing straight down, the water was swirling in a vortex like a flushing toilet. They had recently changed the pipe between the two tanks to a more flexible material. The small effort to make the reactor better appeared to have backfired and altered the water flow.

“God this sucks,” Jamie said.

www.jsonline.com/biodiesel

The school

The Washington Post’s impressive “Fixing D.C.’s Schools” contained a powerful slideshow portraying life at the city’s Coolidge High School from the troubled start of the year until the high hopes of graduation. The slideshow didn’t need narration to tie the story together. Instead, photographer and audio reporter Jahi Chikwendiu, producer Nancy Donaldson and editor Liz Heron used stark pictures and the voices of Coolidge’s students, teachers and principal to tell the story of the school’s ups and downs.

www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/metro/interactives/dcschools

The player

In the delightful “Deaf Bothell football player shines,” Tom Wyrwich of the Seattle Times profiled Thomas Guidon as he overcame the daunting obstacles of being the first deaf student in his school district to be mainstreamed from kindergarten through high school. Wyrwich drew readers right into the story with this lede:

Everything goes silent in an instant.

Students stomping on bleachers. Coaches screaming from the sideline. Referees blowing their whistles. All vanish.

When Bothell High School’s Thomas Guidon’s hearing-aid battery fails, that’s the only time, in football or in life, that he feels disadvantaged and vulnerable.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/highschoolsports/2003952825_wyrwich16.html

The bad apples

Amy Hsuan, Melissa Navas and Bill Graves of The Oregonian produced a first-rate investigation into sexual abuse by educators, “Disciplining Oregon teachers.” Their most damning finding: School administrators often cut secret deals with teachers who sexually abuse students, allowing them to move on to new jobs working with children. Here’s an example:

To get Kenneth John Cushing, then 44, away from Claggett Creek Middle School students immediately, administrators cut him a deal: If Cushing resigned, they would conceal his alleged conduct — clutching students’ waists, touching their buttocks and massaging their shoulders — from the public.

Cushing signed the pact — obtained by The Oregonian through public records requests — with Salem-Keizer Public Schools in 2004, and officials promised not to reveal the teacher’s behavior if potential employers called looking for a reference. www.oregonlive.com/special

Alarming situations

Josh Bernstein of KNXV ABC-15 in Phoenix discovered that Arizona’s state fire inspectors had not checked more than 70 schools in at least two years. One town’s schools hadn’t been inspected in seven years. In “School Fire Inspections Years Behind Schedule,” Bernstein found multiple hazards as he accompanied an inspector:

…we observed violation after violation — emergency exits blocked by huge rolls of carpeting, obstructed fire extinguishers, an extension cord extending through a wall, gas shutoffs not labeled in science labs and inaccessible fire risers.

www.abc15.com

The campus

Students at The Daily Northwestern newspaper and the NorthbyNorthwestern news Web site created one of the most exciting multimedia projects we’ve seen. Their “24@NU” used videos, text and audio to show campus life from the perspective of ROTC members doing drills, a chef cooking dorm food, a professor preparing chemistry experiments, students jamming at a worship service, activists painting political slogans at midnight and many other scenes from a typical day on campus.

www.24atnu.com

Jon Marshall writes for newspapers, magazines and Web sites around the country and is a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School. Brian Summers, who contributes to News Gems is a former senior editor at Reader’s Digest who has written for the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and other newspapers. E-mail newsgems@sbcglobal.net.

For more great stories on a daily basis, look for the News Gems blog at www.spj.org. If you know of a story that you think should be highlighted on News Gems, send a note to newsgems@sbcglobal.net.

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