Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spring contest season: Help!

The trees are blooming, the birds are singing, and I'm thinking about crawling under my desk and hiding for the next few weeks.

Academic competitions are cranking up and pretty much every school and education-related group in the greater Charlotte area is planning year-end recognition events.

As a mom and a human being, I love the celebration of talented kids and caring adults. As a reporter, I feel like the only air-traffic controller staffing a busy day at LaGuardia.

Even during the Observer's flushest times, we never figured out a great strategy for handling the spring onslaught of contests and awards. These days, shrinking staff and an ever-changing array of Neighbors and community publications make it a mind-boggling task to get items to the right place.

I'm hoping y'all can help. Here are some tips that I hope you'll pass along to anyone seeking coverage:

*Eric Frazier and I are charged with covering news that's of interest to tens of thousands of readers. In general, we do stories on national awards and briefs on state winners. But there's always room for stories that have great human interest. Think about whether you'd be interested in this story if you didn't know the people or have a stake in the school.

*Neighbors sections (published on Sundays) and community sections (Wednedays) are great alternatives for school news that doesn't make the main paper. Contact info is below.

*It's great to submit digital photos for those sections (jpeg format preferred). But pleeeeeease don't copy me or Eric on those e-mails. We have very limited inbox storage and a big photo file can shut us down until we purge it.

*If you submit a photo, make sure caption information is attached, including names of people pictured (please check the spelling).

*Make the local connection clear in your header. I spike dozens of extraneous e-mails every day. If your header says something like "News release" or "Big event," the click of oblivion may strike before I find the local information in the fourth paragraph (or worse, in an attachment). The more specific you are about the geographic location (school or neighborhood), the quicker it can get channeled to the right publication.

*If you've submitted a great idea and you don't get a response, don't be afraid to nudge us. I recently did a front-page story on McClintock Middle's award-winning pre-engineering program. The story pitch was perfect -- and I almost overlooked it because it landed when I was immersed in breaking news.

Here's the contact list (also see this list of individual staffers and phone numbers): with submissions for School Notes in all Neighbors sections. for Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, west shore of Lake Norman, Iredell County and Cabarrus County. for southern Mecklenburg (Pineville, Matthews, Ballantyne, Mint Hill), Union and York. for the rest of Mecklenburg, including Mountain Island Lake, west Mecklenburg, University City, uptown, Myers Park, Dilworth and East Charlotte. for Gaston, Catawba, Burke, Caldwell, Alexander, Cleveland and Lincoln

For the Wednesday community publications:


Anonymous said...

I'm shocked ... shocked to find that achievement is going on in here!

I thought we were in the Race to the Bottom.

If only our local education problems were as simple as WWII.

Bolyn McClung

Anonymous said...

Ann, I loved your story on McClintock and I think it's just the type of story that the community needs to hear about our schools. I understand how overwhelmed you and other reporters are and the constraints that space, money, and time put on what appears in the paper. However, during the 90's and early 2000's, before the financial crisis really hit the paper, I always found it odd that academic achievement was so sparsely covered by the Observer. When I inquired about this I was told that academic awards and events were covered in regional sections, not in the daily paper.
At one point a few years ago I noticed an article in the online Observer that CMS had a large number of Merit Scholars, outpacing Wake (a system to which we had been frequently negatively compared). I waited to read about this in the print edition as it seemed like something the community should know--didn't happen. So I emailed the reporter and his editor. The reply from the reporter was that he would try to get the article published so "you can see your child's name in print". Surprise--my last child was graduating from college that year, so was not included in that list I wanted to see in print. This wasn't about me--it was about letting the public know that CMS produces strong students (the article was eventually published but with no mention of Wake).
It's great that the Observer has various local publications that can enumerate awards and events. But when some really strong academic results have been achieved, whether that happens in the urban schools or the suburban schools, how is the whole county going to know about that if only a localized area gets the news? Perhaps this is one reason there is so much negativity towards the system--the vast majority of the community doesn't know all of the good things that are going on. They mostly hear the bad news.
Again, I understand all of the constraints you are working under. However, I don't think this lack of coverage of great academics is anything new. I suspect it goes along with all of the politics our system has been mired in for so long. And I think Bolyn is right--many in the community would be "shocked...shocked to find that achievement is going on in here".
Sharon Starks

Wiley Coyote said...

Ann, Ann, Ann....

By soliciting "our help" for the Observer to do its job, you dimish yours.

These days, shrinking staff and an ever-changing array of Neighbors and community publications make it a mind-boggling task to get items to the right place.

Here's a simple analogy.

Why do you think many retailers, grocery stores in particular, are putting in all of those self-checkout lanes?

To save money by reducing costs - reducing employees.

Those scanners don't need a break, a lunch or get paid a salary. One person can manage 6 scanners as opposed to 6 employees manning 6 separate lanes.

I do not use them. I will stand in line to have someone, usually a high school or college kid working part-time ring me up so they can keep having a job.

I get your point and what you're trying to accomplish and hope you get a lot of requests.

I would be asking why the Observer and other print media outlets waited so long to realize they were and still are getting their clocks cleaned by alternative media sources.

If the Observer has the public and smart journalism students such as the one you featured the other day (you readily admitted scooped you), then why does the Observer need both you and Eric? They could reduce their overhead by eliminating a position and have one of you manage all of the stories the public send in.

I certainly don't want that to happen because I appreciate both of the contributions provided.

Ann Doss Helms said...

Wiley, I'm not sure whether we're agreeing or disagreeing. My goal would be for most folks to self-direct their community/school news to the appropriate publication, leaving me and Eric free to pursue in-depth reporting. Channeling press releases is not the highest and best use of my time. But we haven't always made it easy for readers to do that, so it's not unreasonable for people to think "I should send this to the education reporters."

To Sharon's point, and maybe Wiley's, long lists of contest winners and routine reports on every recognition won't grab the interest of general readers. But a lot of student/educator/volunteer success stories make great feature articles for the main paper. I'd say we feature success stories less than we should but more than many people give us credit for.

Anonymous said...

Ann, I would agree with you that a long list of award winners would not grab public's attention and those kind of things do belong in local editions. The long list is not what I was talking about. And yes, you do some great feature stories. However, I do think that if the paper had developed a tradition long ago of something like a once a week or even once a month column in the local section that hit the high spots of successes throughout the county maybe readers would be expecting that column on a regular basis, and perhaps citizens would today have a more favorable view of CMS. (I remember a column back in 2003 by a now former columnist who wrote wistfully about how when he was a student at Myers Park in the 70's there were kids going off to Ivy League schools--as if that wasn't happening in CMS in the 2000's--apparently he, like many in the city, believed only the private schools were now sending kids to the Ivies or other high level universities).

It seems to me that if we are supposed to be one big school system with everyone concerned for all, we need to know just as much about the good as the bad within the system. And if most reporting of CMS achievements is localized while reporting of problems is countywide (which of course it should be) it's no wonder many have a very unbalanced view of the system.

This is not a slam again you and Eric, Ann. I think this is a philosophical issue that goes way back with The Observer.

Wiley Coyote said...


I agreed by saying: I get your point and what you're trying to accomplish and hope you get a lot of requests.

I think what you're doing is great, but the fourth paragraph is apologetic by you on behalf of the Observer before you ever solicited the public's help for the project.

Maybe others skipped right over that part and went into the rest of the story. For me, I felt a sense of your being a little overwhelmed by your desire to do the job you love yet dealing with cutbacks from your bosses.

If I remember correctly, I believe you stated recently that you have been cutback? If not you then staff that was helping you?

It seems to me, based on the volume of comments from those of us out here, that you, Eric and maybe two others with the Observer provide us with more insight on stories that really matter, than the rest of the reporting combined.

The Observer might want to take a look at that instead of making cutbacks in your area.

Wiley Coyote said...

..and, regarding special interest stories, the Observer should do MORE of those.

The online Observer seems to be the better place for them instead of print. Surely it costs less for a link.

Granted, someone still has to compile, write and post the info but I think that's one reason why high school sports and academic stories never really got much print in the past because of the lack of space and money it cost.

Last year when my son and 5 other students went to Japan for two weeks, not one word made it into the Observer. That's ok because none of us really pushed it, but the two teachers who sacrificed their time, with one going on the trip, should have gotten some recognition for their contributions.

So any stories you get that acknowledge accomplishments by students and teachers are well worth posting.

Ann Doss Helms said...

Sharon, I believe there's a development coming that you'll really like, but since it's not official I can't pre-blab.

Wiley, the Observer overall has seen big cutbacks over the course of the recession, and that has affected us all. But within those constraints, I feel very good about the O's commitment to covering education. A couple of years ago, we went from two full-time reporters to one (me). But when school closings and other budget-driven changes in CMS cranked up the volume of news, Eric was brought back onto the beat. We're both experienced reporters working full time (minus occasional furloughs), so that's a strong signal of support.

Anonymous said...

You know, it's interesting. If you step back and look at the recent history of negativity towards CMS, it wasn't very long ago that some advocacy groups were really pushing the idea that we had bad teachers at low performing schools and that was the root of all of our problems.

I served on a committee that was hell bent on proving that CMS placed the worst and most inexperienced teachers at those schools. There was total denial that family circumstances made any difference in student performance. And so many people jumped on the bandwagon that blamed all of our woes on the teachers.

Now some of these same groups and people have swung the other way and are strongly defending teachers and accusing the school system of demeaning teachers. They are finally acknowledging that those family circumstances can make a big difference in how well a child functions in school and what a teacher can accomplish.

But the damage has been done, I'm afraid. The word is out that teachers are the culprits in poor performance and it seems many are willing to believe that, while those who perpetuated this idea are off looking for their next "culprit".

This is where I think the lack of balance in CMS coverage has led us. Too much emphasis on the culprit du jour and not enough information about how well much of CMS is functioning (within the parameters of a way too big system).
Sharon Starks

Wiley Coyote said...


Agreed but when you have:

The NAACP running around ranting about what they ain't getting instead of focusing on all of the major ills within the Black community.

A BOE that has no ba*lls to make the decisions they were elected to do.

Failure of those same politicians and educrats who refuse to discuss the fraud in FRL and related programs and the unbelieveable waste of funds associated with the program and disparity of people who have to pay for it.

The fact it is NOT CMS' responsibility as to what goes on outside of school property and in the homes of students.

The fact, based on demographics, that half of the White people in Mecklenburg County don't send their kids to CMS schools and a significant number of Blacks who don't either (most notably Foxx & Cannon).

So take all those points away and what are we left with to discuss?

The same pot of chicken broth with a few pieces of gizzards floating around the top.

Pamela Grundy said...

I would like to note that Sharon completely misrepresents the Equity Committee (as she has often done), when she states that "there was total denial that family circumstances made any difference in student performance." Every member of that committee was quite aware that student circumstances mattered a great deal. However, it was also clear that many of these schools did not measure up to wealthier schools in terms of teacher experience, particularly because they had a constant revolving door stream of novice teachers -- which every measure shows are the least effective with students. Sharon refused to see this. I won't speculate as to why.

Wiley Coyote said...

Then tell us Pam why Gorman hasn't placed teachers you would deem qualified in those schools?

Pamela Grundy said...

He's explained his reasoning a number of times. I'm not going to try to read his mind.

Wiley Coyote said...

So prior to Gorman coming in, we had qualified teachers in the low performing schools?

I'm not asking you to read his mind.

I'll ask it this way.

What is your solution to "the problem"? What would YOU do to get those qualified teachers in low performing schools?

You know where I'm going with this which leads into the tenure argument facing many states today.

I've constantly said, "eliminate the excuses" and if we need "quality teachers" in low performing schools then ASSIGN THEM THERE! If they won't go, fire them.

It's really as simple as that.

Pamela Grundy said...

If I really did control the universe, I'd eliminate racial and economic isolation.


It's really as simple as that.

Just 2 + 2.

Wiley Coyote said...

...but you still haven't solved the current problem of how to get those "quality teachers" in those schools..

or is all of that just a myth?

I don't buy your racial and economic isolation excuse.

I'll expand on your 2+2...

2+2=4, no matter whether a disadvantaged child sits between two non-FRL students or between two other FRL students.

The answer is always the same, 4.

Anonymous said...

Why would any person, teacher or otherwise, jeopardize a career knowing that bogus evaluations and the toxic CMS environment would lead to self-destruction. The resulting replacement by TFA or worse, permanent substitutes, is what Mr. Gorman has structured for the continuing demise of both inner city and suburban schools. It's hard enough to motivate "quality students" with "quality teachers" when outside interests (24/7 extracurricular and overbooked students) rule today. When a data manager can do an observation and ruin career educators, something is obscenely wrong. All you have to do is look at the issues facing your school and the battlefield it's become. Maybe the exorcism of 500 of the finer students further in town next year and the loss of 20+ teachers will enhance the learning environment. Somehow, I doubt it.

Wiley Coyote said...

Anon 7:05...

Because they love teaching, right?

The issue I brought up is why tenure is systematically being dismantled in this country as we speak, because for the past 40 years, it has done nothing to ensure kids, all kids, are being adequately and equally educated.

What's the excuse for underperforming schools and dismal graduation rates prior to Gorman becoming the Super?

So Haithcock, Griffin and Smith were miracle workers?

I think not.

Anonymous said...

Well, there are many of us that still enjoy it because of all the perks in NC since the mid 70's when I started at $7k a year. Spaugh, Wilson, Harding and West were entirely different environments in those days due to support from parents, businesses, and community pride. Wilkinson Blvd.,Freedom Dr., and Tuckaseegee Rd. were buoyed by relatively stable businesses at the time. So were the Plaza, Eastway Dr., and Independence Blvd. Your statement on previous leadership(and BOE's) is mostly true though Haithcock and Smith at least visited our schools multiple times. I wish I had a solution to match your dedication. However, I'm preparing for the McArthur method as the teacher enemy. We'll just retire and fade away to another part of the world and volunteer our profoundly meager skillsets as outlined by the local administration to some other school system.
SC should be ready to implode in a couple of years.
Wiley, thanks for the discourse. As Garrison Keillor described Lutherans (and certain aspects of CMS) "They can look reality straight in the eye............ and deny it."

Wiley Coyote said...

Anon... Funny you should mention Lutherans...

I am Lutheran - and a realist.

I was also married to a K-4 teacher for 11 years, had a number of friends who were principals and admin, so I've seen a lot of it and lived with it. I've discussed the same things with them back then as I do here today. Not much has changed.

My ex-wife taught at schools that were 89%+ FRL for many years, inner city and poor rural districts.

I've been hearing the same excuses for 30 years. It's way past time to eliminate them.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not that the excuses are the same, but that the problems are the same?

Anonymous said...

Please recognize the usual atypical student who overcame cancer, her grandparent's divorce, the death of her best friend due to a senseless act of violence, the loss of her father's job, a house fire and severe acne but still managed to preside over the student council, spearhead a record fundraiser to open a girls' school in an oppressed country, won a triathlon in her spare time, plays the piano beautifully and was offered a full ride scholarship to Stanford.

I love these stories. They're so uplifting and validate my self-worth as a mother. Seriously, a few of these stories are good.

Here's a thought... Why don't you write about the best kid in each of the 52 pay-for -performance subject areas CMS will be testing? You can include a picture of their top-notch (I mean "most popular" teacher) in the photo layout.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, and did I mention my son will be starting college this fall? Unlike the rest of his peers, senior-itis hasn't kicked in and I kept my cool during the entire college admissions process.

You are welcome to write about the "drive by drop off" that may be taking place this May in front my son's assigned dorm room.

"By darling! Love you! See you at Thanksgiving"!

Anonymous said...

I've got it! An anonymous letter writing contest that allows parents to pay homage to their children as they head off to college, the military, etc..

Dear son,
As you venture out into big, wide world (wha, wha, wha, wha, wha, Charlie Brown teacher noise).... I'd like to thank you for always leaving the toilet seat down - because you never lifted it up. I'm starting to like the hamster you brought home a few days ago that you promised you would be fully responsible for because we all know colleges allow students to have pet rodents in dorms rooms as an inalienable right. Please feel free to become a vegetarian, a member of the National Rifle Association, take that for-credit college sex class with toy demonstrations, and become a general know-it-all while your father and I pay your tuition all in the name of higher education. On behalf of the hours we lived in Discovery Place while you were a child, I herby bestow you the "Rat Basketball Award" that most likely saved the lives of countless children after you stuck your finger in the cage and that mean rat bit you. Long live Plexiglas and the phrase "children, stay behind the white line"! What happens in Vermont, stays in Vermont. You're the best son I ever could have hoped for. Thanks for putting up with me. I'm sorry I embarrassed you in that tulle outfit and feathered purple boa at school. I love you very much.