Ed reporting reveals what matters most E-mail
Opinion
Saturday, 29 March 2014 09:35

By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman

School bond issue.

No, no, don’t fold the paper and put it away. I’m on your side. What side is that, you may ask?

The side of the saturated. The side of the skeptical. The side of the citizen, the tax-paying kind.

I’m also on the side of the students.

Like you, I’m saturated because I’ve been talking and reading and writing about the bond issue for months. It’s nearly election day, so hang in there. If I can, you can. My skepticism comes from the nature of this job, which requires question-asking. Citizenship? Growing up, I quickly realized that was the only grade my parents considered non-negotiable.

As a journalist, I’m not supposed to bring bias to the stories I write. Not only is that a tall order, most people don’t believe it’s possible. When I began covering the education beat several years ago, detractors worried that I would be unable to do a fair job because I had homeschooled my own children for nearly a decade.

“She doesn’t believe in public education,” they said, missing a crucial point. I believed in education so much that I took it on as a personal responsibility. For me, reporting on what other teachers, administrators, board members and counselors did was a thrill, partly because I was wearing all four of those hats along with my “Mom” apron. I found the operations of the district fascinating.

When the board fretted about entire bookshelves of new textbooks that sat unused, I understood. Sometimes you choose a highly-praised program for phonics or science or Latin, and the research backs it up, and you buy it … and halfway through the semester, you realize it’s not working, no matter how you tweak, plead or regret the price tag. It’s happened to me more than once. It can happen to anyone.

And when finance director Jerry Clay explained, over and over, how sometimes you have to spend money up front before you are guaranteed a result, I understood what he meant. At that time, our household operated on a shoestring. My youngest child had outgrown her 3/4-size cello. She showed tremendous promise. Could I guarantee the investment in a large, $3,000 instrument would give us a good ROI? I could not. Did I have the cash sitting in a Rainy Day Cello fund? I did not. Did I purchase a cello using credit? I did. I finished paying for the instrument right around the time my daughter fell in love with jazz piano.

For now, the instrument Amira claims is truly my favorite child stands in the corner, silent. I stand by my decision to adopt Johann. He may yet sing again. Even if he doesn’t, the experience of learning to read music, play classical pieces and persevere when the sunny playground looked more alluring all served to develop my daughter into the amazing 15-year-old she is. I could say the same about my 17-year-son, who played piano for six years before declaring his independence, but nobody is supposed to know he can play.

My home-educating experiences did not leave me hostile to public school. Just fascinated and, sometimes, a little jealous. How awesome would it be to have someone else serve the lunches and grade the math?

Now that my two youngest attend Liberal High School, I’ve been amused to hear people question my commitment to rigorous reporting. Detractors worry that I’ve “become part of the system.”

If that’s true, I’ve got some real news for readers: we are all part of the system, because we are all part of this community. Perhaps your children attended schools in USD 480 decades ago. Perhaps you did. Perhaps you moved here after raising a family elsewhere. Perhaps you homeschool. Perhaps you chose not to have children.

None of that matters. If you live in Liberal, the school district belongs to you, as does the future of the community. None of us relishes the thought of outsiders deciding how we should conduct our lives or raise our children. Nor do we want to live in a world filled with people who don’t know how to reason or do math.

But what does that mean about the school bond issue? Am I crossing the ethical line to advocate when I’m supposed to be reporting?

Two things I can say. First, I won’t tell you how I plan to vote, or how I think you should vote. I’d rather stay on the right side of the newswriter’s line.

Second: believe the best. This is where the inside view I enjoy as a journalist should interest you. In the work I do every day, I see and hear things I’d sometimes rather forget. It’s my job to peer around the corner, look under the cover, ask the questions that border on rude. Somehow, I have to do all this while winning the trust of the people I interview. And then, then I have to tell the truth in a way that speaks to readers.

It’s not a vocation to take lightly, and it would be easy to give in to cynicism. Too often, you see the worst in people. But that’s not all. You also see the best. It shines through in unguarded moments of enthusiasm, recollection and affection. You see truths the people you interview might not even know. You see patterns. You see what could be the best reality of the world, if we would only give it a chance.

This week, I visited Sunflower Intermediate School, where fourth-graders had staged their first-ever book fair. So far, just three photos have made it into the newspaper because there’s only so much space. On my camera’s memory card, however, are 20 more images — one of every child I met. When their teacher, Miss Colbert, greeted me, her contagious enthusiasm reminded me that I have yet to encounter an indifferent teacher in this district. Personalities vary. Even so, I haven’t met anyone who chose education because it was easy. These teachers are committed, and they care.

That day, I also saw the students lined up, gleaming with excitement, and I knew I’d be late getting back to the office. I could not bring myself to select a few children and dismiss the rest. I talked to every boy and girl in that line, reluctant readers, social butterflies, charming boys who knew all the right things to say, girls who, like my former self, consume books by the stack and cannot settle on a favorite.

I left the school filled with elation. I always do. No matter what you might think about the mill levy and the challenge of English-language learners and the terrifying question of how much technology is enough, one thing is clear: USD 480 is crammed with students who brim with energy, with talent, with hope. Their promise merits our confidence. Vote with them in mind.

 
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The High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times are published Sunday through Friday and reaches homes throughout the Liberal, Kansas retail trade zone. The Leader & Times is the official newspaper of Seward County, USD No. 480, USD No. 483 and the cities of Liberal and Kismet.  The Leader & Times is a member of the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Press Association, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press.

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