Watergate and the Snowden files are the kinds of stories that captivate the public imagination, or at least my own. Exposing the evils at the top of society, or drudging them from the bottom, frames the journalist as the white knight of democracy. That is the essential role of the press: to hold the powerful accountable.
But, as it turns out, illuminating the good plays just as important a role in engaging and solving systemic issues — even the most troubling and demanding of our time.
Last week was the end of my six-month run as the intern at School News Network, a news source operated out of the Kent Intermediate School District with a mission to tell the stories of the Kent area’s more than 20 school districts.
For me, the extended internship was the learning experience of a lifetime. But perhaps most importantly, it opened my eyes to the much broader role that journalists play, and how that matters.
Mainstream media tends to sketch a grim picture of public education. And that is because it fails to accomplish what we do at School News: share hundreds of stories every year about the good work being done inside of schools — the work of teachers, students and the system itself.
Schools need reporters to do more than scrutinize. Schools need more of their stories told — period — because, overwhelmingly, the stories reveal to the public the positive, inspiring work educators and students do on a daily basis.
Public education, the topical focus of School News Network, is a system that has been long-saturated in controversy, largely at the whim of politicians. The harshest say gut it; promote charter schools; implement Right to Work (as they have in Michigan); privatize various school needs; drag the budget into the depths and save the economy.
But step back. You can’t deny that students are the leaders of the future and the future leaders of the economy. And schools have the obligation to serve every single one of them in a growing plethora of ways.
Food, transportation, health care, counseling, special education, arts and athletics — the list goes on. The responsibility of schools to provide these services has increased dramatically since the foundation of our education system.
Schools provide their services to the rich, the poor, the migrant, the illiterate, the sick, the hungry, the disabled, the abused and neglected — to all. Education in this country is a fundamental right. How can it be saved from its rapid dishevelment?
One answer is to show the people what works.
Earlier this year, our School News Network staff met with nationally acclaimed education advocate and author Jamie Vollmer. Vollmer’s most pertinent message was, “You can’t change a school unless you change the community around it.” So, he said, you’ve got to show the community that schools are succeeding and that they matter.
“You guys are the tip of the spear,” he told the SNN staff. He said that sharing the good things about schools, rather than tagging them with the negativity they have endured for so long from politicians and the public, is the key to raising community faith and interest, and ultimately bolstering support for education.
School News Network’s unique brand of journalism is tackling an enormous societal challenge, if only in its nascent stage. It covers the issues of education, but also serves as a beacon of light, aimed at the community from classrooms where learning thrives like never before.
If a politician were to scour our website, he would discover a collective narrative that resembles a microcosm of the education system. Kent ISD serves some of the highest and lowest performing schools in the state. It offers high-tech, innovative programs while fighting hunger, homelessness, inequity of opportunity and all the ails of poverty — the greatest underlying challenge for public schools.
School News Network provides sterling proof that the education system, in spite of its many challenges, is not an issue itself. Inversely, it is an investment that America needs to rekindle now more than ever.
As the intern, my role has involved research, reporting, editing — learning the craft (as shaky and unconfident as I remain) under some fine instruction. I understand, also, that my perception of the news as an exposure of the dark, scabby underbelly of our world, thrilling as that seems, is not the full picture.
Some of the most gratifying and crucial work is done where there are smiles, where there is laughter, where there are people who deserve to be alleviated of the crushing negativity imposed on them — where progress begins, in its earliest form.
The news tends to paint a picture of a bleak and ruined world — but at least in the case of public education, that isn’t always the heart of the story.
— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist