Reporting from an Urban School

Working as a reporter in an urban school creates some challenges. Among them, finding good news to report. Time spent at Northwestern High School in Baltimore illustrates the point.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

Working as a reporter in an urban school creates some challenges, among them finding good news to report. NPR's Larry Abramson has been hanging out at Northwestern High School in Baltimore. Here's a look inside his reporter's notebook.

LARRY ABRAMSON: If 90 percent of life is just showing up, that goes double for life in an urban high school. Staffers bend over backwards to get students to show up every day. And they have to do the same thing for teachers.

Earlier this month, the principal called teachers to a meeting in the library. They listened to the principal give an update on efforts to improve test scores. And then fine arts teacher Patty Owens(ph) took the floor to pat teachers on the back just for showing up for work.

PATTY OWENS: I believe that it's a major accomplishment - major, major - to come to Northwestern High School every day during the month to meet with students who appear not to appreciate us.

ABRAMSON: For me, this kind of speech poses a dilemma. Is it depressing the teachers feel so dispirited that they call in sick? Or is the effort to reward good attendance a sign the school is trying to turn things around by boosting morale in small ways?

OWENS: If we had a million dollars, that's what we would give each one of you who comes to school every day, half a million if you miss a day or two. Because you are definitely appreciated.

ABRAMSON: Owens then reads a list of teachers with good attendance records. Teachers march to the front of the room, grinning awkwardly to accept their little certificates. The crowd applauds faintly for each one, and they giggle as Ms. Owens hands out the stars, including one for herself.

OWENS: Patty Owens, a star.

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OWENS: And I am playing. You already did? Oh, I'm playing. Elizabeth Simrow(ph), a star.

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OWENS: Sean Swanson(ph).

ABRAMSON: In the end, this brief episode is like everything else I've seen at this school - bittersweet, a sign that things are looking up, also a sign of how far they have to go. The award winners get a coffee mug or a $10 gift certificate. The mugs aren't very popular. Then everyone heads home.

OWENS: Gift card.

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WERTHEIMER: Larry Abramson will be watching Northwestern's efforts to improve student achievement for the rest of this year.

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