Sunday, May 22, 2016

Spotlight, P.R., & the State of the Schools

Generally speaking, I am not a movie person.

It's rather ironic, then, that I am talking about movies twice in one week!

[The first time was last Friday, where I gave the Welcome at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice fundraising breakfast, and talked about how Sandra Bullock's character in Miss Congeniality wants world peace, and how we know we can't just want world peace, we have to act on it. Check out ICPJ here.]

Probably my favorite movie of last year was the movie Spotlight. That's the movie about the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I was fascinated by the work the reporters did to uncover the story, to build the case. If you were watching, though, there was a part that horrified me. (And no, it's not what you think--of course the scandal itself is horrifying--this is more subtle.) There's a part in the movie when 9/11 happens. (And yes, that too is horrifying--but again, this is more subtle.)

What happens to the reporters working on Spotlight when 9/11 happens? They get pulled off their project. Every one of them. [In the process, they upset many of the survivors/witnesses they had interviewed.] The project, uncovering the abuse scandal, languished.

And if that was the case in 2001, that is even more the case now.

Look at what happened in Flint! If not for the dedication of an investigative reporter hired by the ACLU (not the usual path for investigative journalism, to be hired by a nonprofit), who knows when this story would have seen the light of day! After it broke, some Flint MLive reporters and Detroit Free Press and Detroit News reporters have turned their attention to the story in Flint (and they've done an excellent job)--but I imagine that in doing so, they have been pulled off some equally important story, that in turn may never see the light of day.

We need to do a better job supporting investigative journalism. The model we have is not working, and investigative journalism is critical to our democracy.

Right now we have a single, new to town, education reporter for MLive in Ann Arbor. (Welcome, Lauren Slagter.) And yet in Washtenaw County we have over 46,000 K-12 students in our county, and thousands of school teachers/staff.

Meanwhile, Monet Tiedemann has been live blogging as many of the Ann Arbor school board meetings as she can at

But that's it.

The situation is similar, or worse, in Dexter, Chelsea (they have Chelsea Update, at least), Saline, Ypsilanti...


So if you've been paying attention, you will notice that Ann Arbor school administration--and to a lesser but notable extent, Chelsea, Dexter, Saline, and Ypsilanti school administration--have been putting a lot of effort into their own P.R. machines. You can see evidence of this on twitter, and facebook;  in emailed newsletters; and on their school web sites. Each of them, in their own way, are trying to promote their districts, share the good news about their districts, draw attention to their districts. And who can blame them? Journalists are few and far between.

So last week, Jeanice Swift organized a "State of the Ann Arbor Schools" event. She had the Community High band Tempus Fugit play, she had Rep. Jeff Irwin and County Commissioner Andy LaBarre speak, and she herself spoke.
Tempus Fugit playing at the State of the Schools.
L to R: Aidan Wada-Dawson, Jonathan Lynn, Aaron Willette,
Seamus Lynch, Danny Freiband, Avery Farmer.

Rep. Jeff Irwin speaking. He had my favorite line:
"Education is economic development."

And I think that organizing this event, from the point of view of promoting the school district, was a good idea. I do hope that next year the event will be held in one of our schools, and not on the second floor of a hotel with no easy parking. I do hope that next year the event will be widely promoted to parents, PTOs, etc. In other words, I'd like to see 200 citizens in addition to the 50 or so administrators and blue ribbon panel members that were there.

In full disclosure, I left before Jeanice Swift spoke, so I'm not sure what she said exactly. But based on the handouts, I imagine she talked about happy things, like the fact that graduation rates are improving, and that she discussed some of the new district initiatives.


In case you are wondering, I don't expect Jeanice Swift, in a State of the Schools event, to dwell on issues that are significant problems, and even if she does or did, I would expect her to give a PR perspective on it, because essentially, this is a PR event.

It's reasonable to expect that not everything is hunky-dory, and that it might require someone from the outside to look in and see what's not working. 

For instance: I think it's worth mentioning that the teachers I have spoken to are still quite upset about the time consuming and (in their opinion) ridiculous evaluation process they are now required to go through; still upset about the way the school board treated them last year during contract negotiations; worried about the way contract negotiations are going this year. And--many of them are afraid to speak out, feeling they have been implicitly threatened.

The point is this: there are a lot of great things going on in the Ann Arbor schools (and in the other local districts, too). But there are also things that don't fit the narrative of a PR machine, and they don't show up in a State of the Schools event. 

We expect that we will learn about them through the media--and at this point, I'm not really sure that's possible.

So who knows what we are missing?!

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