This is one in a series of interviews with Colorado journalists.
By Ed Otte
Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit web-based news organization – www.co.chalkbeat.org – covering educational change in Colorado schools.
In addition to staff-written stories that provide an in-depth look at school issues, the Chalkbeat site offers daily educational headlines from a broad network of other state print and broadcast news sources.
Coverage focuses on K-12 education in Denver, Aurora and Jefferson County as well the state board of education and the Colorado Legislature. Former Denver Post reporter and editor Todd Engdahl covers the Capitol and, during the legislative session, that reporting includes an extensive education bill tracker feature.
Chalkbeat Colorado relies on financial donations from a list of national sponsors – ranging from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Walton Family Foundation – and dozens of Colorado business and education leaders. Its website has a “Donate” button offering one-time contribution amounts of $125 to $1,000.
The organization’s philosophy, stated on its website, addresses a big-picture view of education: There are endless stories to be told about public schools, the people who work in them, and the children they serve. At Chalkbeat, we try to focus on what’s really going to matter, not just what’s happening. We do this by assessing every development through the lens of five major “storylines” we believe drive educational change:
Teaching and learning: the work happening inside schools
Politics and policymakers: the officials and advocacy groups that create school law and policy
Bureaucracy and operations: the evolving structures governing schools
Out-of-school context: the environmental factors that students bring to school
Educational tools: curriculum, textbooks, standards and assessments.
Started in 2008 as EdNews Colorado by Denver’s Public Education and Business Coalition, it later merged with GothamSchools, a website based in New York, to become Chalkbeat. Former Colorado bureau chief Maura Walz transferred to the network level, which provides support for bureaus across the country, in January to become deputy managing editor. A new bureau chief is expected to be named soon.
Nic Garcia is senior reporter and interim operations chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. He covers schools in Jefferson County and Aurora and other metro school districts as well as statewide school improvement efforts and Common Core Standards. Prior to joining the organization in October 2013, Garcia was the editor of Out Front, a statewide LGBT magazine.
Question: What is the No. 1 K-12 issue in Colorado?
Garcia: I don’t think there is a “No. 1” issue. So much of what schools do is interconnected. Having said that, if you ask school leaders, teachers and parents, most will say two things: testing and funding. We did see the legislature attempt to tackle the issue of testing last spring. Critics say it’s not enough. So, we’ll see what other additional changes might come if and when Congress rewrites federal legislation. Regarding funding, your guess is as good as mine as to how Colorado gives more money to schools.
Question: Your website posts links to stories from the Loveland Reporter-Herald, Longmont Times-Call, Denver Business Journal, Daily Camera, Denver Post, KUNC, 9News, Fox31 and other news organizations. Does Chalkbeat have a partnership agreement with the organizations to share news stories?
Garcia: Every morning Chalkbeat aggregates the latest educational headlines from around the state and nation for our readers. We post what we call “Rise & Shine” both on our website and then email a version to thousands of readers across the state. It is a daunting task so early in the morning but our readers love it.
Chalkbeat also encourages other news organizations to republish our original reporting – for free. We send out stories of interest like state databases to members of the Colorado Press Association. And anyone can use our “republish” tool on our website. With just one click of a button, any news organization can republish our stories on its own website. (It’s the “R” button above each article.)
Question: Do non-news organizations republish your stories?
Garcia: Chalkbeat’s reporting is picked up by all sorts of organizations. Nonprofits and scholarly journals are just as likely to republish or cite our reports as other news organizations – if not more.
Question: Denver media focus on metro-area educational news. How do you complement your metro coverage with stories on school issues in rural Colorado?
Garcia: That’s a really good question. For a while there, we had a reporter who split her time between covering Denver Public Schools and rural schools. Sadly, that reporter left the organization for personal reasons. I think we need to come up with a solution on how to cover rural issues. And if there are any rural reporters or editors out there who might want to partner on some projects, let me know. (email@example.com)
Question: What is the most under-reported education story in Colorado?
Garcia: It’s a tie. The first is how schools are implementing new content standards that were developed in 2010. Second, how schools are spending their money in a really granular way.
Question: What feedback to you get from your audience?
Garcia: Like any news organization, it ranges. We hear it all from “you’re doing a great job” to “you suck.” But I think what’s really ringing in my ears is that readers want more and deeper coverage of complex issues and fewer day stories.
Question: Chalkbeat is in the same Rocky Mountain PBS offices in downtown Denver with I-News and Inside Energy. Do the reporters and editors discuss story ideas or share news sources?
Garcia: We love the folks at I-News and Inside Energy. It’s go great to be in a space with like-minded individuals. We do share tips, sources, even content. But I think I speak for everyone when I say the best thing about being in this shared space is the Friday happy hours.
Question: In addition to Colorado, Chalkbeat has bureaus in New York, Tennessee and Indiana. Why these states?
Garcia: Chalkbeat was created by the founders of two existing news websites – EdNews Colorado and GothamSchools in New York. That’s one of the reasons why we’re in Colorado and New York. But more importantly, we’re in these states because we believe each has interesting stories to tell about how changes in education policy are impacting low-income students of color. For example, Indiana has one of the largest voucher programs for low-income students. Tennessee has one of the most robust state-run school turnaround programs in our nation. The success of those policies don’t have implications just for students in those states – but for the entire nation.
Question: What is the challenge in attracting financial supporters who don’t intend to influence your news coverage?
Garcia: As a reporter, I have very little to do with the logistics of fundraising. So, I’m probably not the best person to answer this question. I can say each of our funders understand they have no influence in our coverage and – from what I can tell – it hasn’t been a problem yet.