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Everyday problems can be great stories

Maybe it’s the way Indiana handles its testing, or maybe it’s the nature of the education beat. But I spend a lot of time reporting on standardized tests — results, impact and changes they are undergoing or forcing schools to undergo.

One thing that keeps coming up as I report those stories is how student transience, that is kids moving frequently, was causing some schools to do even worse than they otherwise would. It’s uncontrollable, administrators would tell me, and it’s impacting us big time.

It’s not that I didn’t believe them. I know it’s bad when you move around a lot. I didn’t experience it because my mom planted us firmly and didn’t budge until we’d all crossed the stage at graduation precisely because she’d been subjected to more schools than I have fingers AND toes. (Yes, that’s more than 20 schools before she crossed the same stage I would nearly three decades later.) The impact wasn’t lost on her, and it’s something that continues to affect her everyday life even today. How could it not?

But how big of a deal it was in my community, and whether the schools were making a bigger deal than necessary, was a question I had from the very first time it was offered up as an excuse reason for some of the low numbers. It was something I wanted to look into. And finally, after initially proposing the idea this fall, I got to work on it at the beginning of this year.

On Sunday, that enterprise package ran on A1 as the anchor to our annual Grading Our Schools package (which is the annual performance reports detailing how each and every school in our coverage area performed on just about every possible thing the state measures).

I think it was one of the stories I’ve worked hardest on possibly ever. It required requesting data — it actually required schools to collect and compile that data for me — and cross-referencing it against what data I could get elsewhere. (I spent a lot of time creating and looking at spread sheets this past month.) It required getting into classrooms and talking to teachers, several I didn’t even end up using. It required leg work to find a family to help tell the story. It required patience to find an outside expert to discuss the issue. And it required a whole lot of concentration for me to finally rein everything in last week and focus the story. And then, it required killing quite a few of my darlings to tighten it and make my point.

It’s not 100 percent my favorite story I’ve ever written. But it may be my favorite story I’ve reported. If that makes sense. Yes there are other things I’d like to have had time to do with it. A multimedia component tops my list (though there were graphics in print, which didn’t get posted online?). Like all enterprise here, I had to work it in between my daily assignments. Even this past week when my editor laid off of me quite a bit on daily copy and let me wrap it up, it wasn’t my sole priority. But I think it accomplished what I hope it would. It’s just nice to see something I worked so hard on come to fruition.

All I had to do to find teachers and principals willing to open up to me was mention the topic of my story. Their anecdotes came pouring out. They all knew exactly what I was asking and why I was asking about it. This isn’t just the topic of a story to them, this is a real problem they are struggling with everyday. So there’s another lesson in this: Everyday problems can make for some of the best stories.

Sure, it’s not a government corruption exposé or anything. But it is an underreported and understudied problem, that does lead to real consequences, not just for the schools but for the kids, even long after primary school ends. My mother being exhibit A above. What I hope it accomplishes is that it makes at least one parent stop and reconsider moving her child or even one community member step forward and volunteer to help those kids. It is a problem that has been ongoing for, well, probably forever.

(As a side note: Sunday was another first for me. It was the first time I’ve ever had an all-Meranda front page. I know it’s not as big a deal when you consider our size means fewer stories on covers. But still a pretty cool feat.)

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