Staying Objective About School Coverage
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
First impressions are hard to escape in real life. That's just as true in journalism especially when you're covering institutions as complex as the nation's schools.
NPR's education correspondent Larry Abramson has been visiting schools in New Orleans. Here are some first impressions from his Reporter's Notebook.
LARRY ABRAMSON: For me, it's hard to avoid. The moment I enter a school I get a vibe and I start making snap judgments. When producer Marisa Penalosa and I stopped by Frederick Douglas High School in New Orleans last month, kids were lined up to get past the metal detectors. There were so many students and security guards exchanging tense looks. We thought there have been some huge fights. Lots of urban schools look like this but it still shocks you.
I knew little about the school's test scores, about the qualifications of the teachers, whether they had a good music program, but the impression that lingered is that of an armed camp. Compare that with what I found across the town.
Mr. MANNING(ph) (Teacher, KIPP Believe College Prep): Good afternoon.
Unidentified Students: Good afternoon, Mr. Manning.
ABRAMSON: KIPP Believe College Prep has a completely different aura. I have to confess I have a soft spot for this school. I visited it twice over the past school year. Why is that? Is it because of the nonstop thank yous?
Mr. MANNING: Thank you, Mendel(ph). Thank you, autumn, Casa(ph), and our team, Wellington, looks very focused and ready, and I wonder why.
ABRAMSON: Teachers even interrupt their lessons to thank kids for paying attention. Maybe this school makes a good impression because it's a small school, only 89 fifth graders. Little kids are always easier to like than hundreds of awkward, stressed-out teenagers.
But in truth, this school is only a year old, so it's really hard to say objectively whether these low-income kids really are closer to get their goal of getting to college.
There are lots of other ways to take the pulse of a school. Is there trash on the floor? Is the front office full of parents appealing suspensions? Is the building in good shape? Is there toilet paper in the bathrooms? These things often sound very damning on the radio and they stick in your mind, but how much do they really matter. For these kids, the future may depend more on numbers, graduation rates, test scores than on first impressions.
YDSTIE: Larry Abramson covers education for NPR. You can see and hear his stories on New Orleans schools at npr.org.