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Some reflections on covering education in Minnesota

This morning I re-read the first story I ever wrote for MinnPost. It was published almost exactly eight years ago, and it detailed tensions between Minneapolis Public Schools and residents of the city’s near north side. 

The flashpoints were the same as they are today — can the district deliver the same outcomes to its impoverished residents of color as it does its wealthy white students? — though the moment has definitely shifted.

I’m working up to a point here. But I am also determined not to bury the lede. I’ve accepted a new position as writer-in-residence for Education Post. I’m incredibly excited about it, and more than a little nostalgic.

Education Post is a year-old nonprofit based in Chicago, led by former U.S. Education Undersecretary Peter Cunningham and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation. The aim is to foster constructive conversation about change in education.

Chris Stewart, the former Minneapolis School Board member and African American Leadership Forum director, joined Education Post a year ago and has done some stellar work there — including a summer’s worth of reflections on New Orleans’ bold, 10-year-old school reform experiment.

Chris has spent the last year traveling the country finding and nurturing the voices of parents and teachers, many of them of color, who are deeply invested in public education, and have stories that deserve a public platform. I’m excited to add my voice to the mix.

I’ll be writing about policies and strategies I have come to believe in both through my MinnPost reporting on efforts that are moving the needle and from my experiences as a Minneapolis parent. And I will have the opportunity to tell stories on a national scale without uprooting my family.

So what of that 8-year-old inaugural story? As I read, I thought about how much had changed in education, in journalism and in my relationship as a parent to schools. 

When I wrote that 2007 story, MPS was just beginning to acknowledge that dramatic change was necessary. School leaders had almost no ability to hire and keep the staff they wanted. Doctrinaire beliefs prevented the district from selling long-mothballed school buildings to charters. Talking about race could get you chastised, as color-blind was the goal.

There have been many changes since then, but two of the biggest have been synergistic, in my opinion. The education sector’s ability to use data to identify unmet needs and promising practices arrived as the Twin Cities were getting their first high-performing, high-poverty schools.

No longer is it possible to ignore the fact that for disadvantaged kids better really is possible. And it's impossible, in my book, to look at the rates at which we are failing them — often despite the knowledge that we can do better — and not feel a tremendous sense of urgency.

Beth Hawkins
MinnPost photo by Andrew Wallmeyer
Beth Hawkins

When I wrote that first story, my older son was in third grade. Because I had the means to buy into the cheapest block of the right ZIP code, he is enjoying a world-class education at Southwest High School. He has access to more high-level offerings than many college students.

Son No. 2 was in kindergarten back then. We didn’t know it then, but he has Asperger’s and needed special-ed services. It’s been a long journey that one day I will write about, but suffice to say I have learned something about the painful dynamic that plays out when a school sees a deficit instead of a child. 

For the record, my now eighth-grader is having by far the best school year of his life at the crazy-innovative Venture Academy, which is engaged in game-changing work. I know the rap on charters and special ed, but Venture’s special-ed students are doing twice as well as MPS’.

Which brings us to the sea change that has transpired in journalism. You might not recall, but in the space of a few horrible weeks in 2007 the Twin Cities lost an unprecedented number of reporters. It seemed certain to be the death of journalism.

There I sat — scheming and freelancing, having been told by a career counselor that the only occupations I was suited for were corporate trainer, philatelist and writer — when MinnPost's then-executive editor Roger Buoen called.

If you’ve ever met Roger, you know that even as an unfamiliar voice over the phone, he sends out the kind of safety-net vibe all the best editors exude. So I listened past the phrase “Internet startup” and ended up with a succession of safety-net editors and amazing colleagues.

The money part is, if anything, just as big a problem today as it was in 2007. The same big-city newsrooms that snickered when MinnPost and other nonprofit news sites popped up are now looking to foundation support, crowdsourcing campaigns and other nontraditional methods to pay for public-policy reporting.

At the same time, so much about journalism is so much better. My training dates to an era when we were taught to think of ourselves as gatekeepers. We didn’t tell readers what to think — that would not have meshed with the gloss of objectivity — but we did tell them what to think about.

We lost a lot of good people in the upheaval. Newsroom librarians, pothole-divining copy editors and a shocking number of photographers and other visual storytellers. But the gatekeeper? Good riddance, I say.

Because you know what? The best part of eight years at MinnPost has been the two-way nature of the new newsgathering process. We are exceptionally lucky in Minnesota to have a community that is willing to donate to create a sustainable model for civic-minded news.

To those of you who have donated, commented, shown up to MinnPost events, agreed to open your classroom or your heart to me, thank you. To the folks at the Bush Foundation, who have supported this work the last year and a half from the other side of a tall, tall firewall, thanks also. 

It has been an absolute privilege to be allowed into schools to learn about roadblocks that would seem insurmountable if it weren’t for the aforementioned urgency, to witness audacious and hopeful things and to meet the young people who are going to shepherd us into the future.

That I have had the luxury of spending my days writing about what I see for a readership that feels so personally vested in those stories? I didn’t imagine that journalism, reborn as a conversation, could be so much fun.

I’m looking forward to broadening that conversation in my new role. I hope you will join me. Because, to cop one last phrase from former MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, all our kids are all our kids.

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Comments (11)

Our Loss is the Nation's Gain

At a time when education is objectively more important than ever and public interest in schools is also far higher than it was when I started as a classroom teacher 25 years ago, Beth Hawkins has been an extraordinary asset to the Twin Cities. I could cite many reasons her work has been so important, but I'll just flag one that stands out for me as she moves on to a bigger perch: she has understood that the details really matter. All tests are not created equal, all improvements in achievement are not significant, all policies are not implemented well, all students and schools do not face the same opportunities and challenges. She has made the complex comprehensible and frequently compelling. She has covered education like a thoughtful reporter covers economics or health care -- as a serious endeavor in which caring a lot about kids and working really hard are necessary but not sufficient ingredients in the formula for success. She has been almost alone among journalists writing about education in the Twin Cities in asking for data or at least a logical explanation to back up the claims that educators, policy makers and researchers make to the public. And she has been even more alone in going back to see which of those claims were actually acted upon and which ones produced results.

It has been a privilege to occasionally be one of Beth's sources -- often not to be quoted or even mentioned in one of her pieces but just to help her get some of the wonky technical stuff clear in her head so she can explain it to readers who care deeply about kids and learning. Thanks for that work, Beth. We could say that you are leaving a big hole to be filled, but I'd prefer to say you've laid a great foundation for what I hope will be MinnPost's continuing thoughtful coverage of education in our state and beyond.

Well said, Kent!

You will be missed on the local scene, Beth. At the same time I'm excited that so many others will now benefit from the perspective and rigor you bring to education journalism. In short: ditto Kent.

As they say in the Navy…

…Well done, Ms. Hawkins.

Thank you!

I felt like I was on the inside of a camera lens, looking at all sides of the issues, when reading your columns. All the best, in the new (ad)venture!

Best of luck, Beth

You did a tough job on a gnarly topic. Will miss your writing here, but maybe catch it elsewhere. Thank you for your hard work.

Congratulations

My best to you and your family as you move to Chicago. I know you will have an interesting time as you follow their complicated political scene as well as their huge educational system and all of its challenges. You will be remembered fondly in Minnesota for your fine work in reporting on education. You reported in a fair, honest, and direct manner and always seemed to dive deeply into the issues. It is sad to say but those qualities are rare today in the quick-hitting drive-by media frenzy world we live in. Congratulations on your new "post" and thanks for regarding ALL the children as OUR kids!

In appreciation

Thank you for providing all those things Mr. Pekel referenced. For me you have been the go-to source to understand the arc and detail of our educational landscape. Best to you and your family on your new adventure.

Congratulations

Always found your coverage as excellent...one of consistent reporting on the issue of education; focusing often on its weaknesses...and highlighting the need for balance in order to offer all our children equal opportunity.

You always did your 'homework' in order expose those weak spots and unjust practices in order to validate the need for improvement... thus highlighting the needs of sometimes forgotten or neglected students within our school system.

Watch dog with a conscience is rare indeed.. Thanks.

Kudos--and thanks

Over so many years and in so many ways I have learned from you, Beth. You are an insightful and incisive writer and the education community benefits greatly from your work. I'll miss your regular presence in MinnPost, but am glad you'll continue to make your mark on education as a vehicle for social justice. Many many thanks.

Congratulations!

I was terribly disappointed that I missed the Minnpost Social night where you spoke recently, I would have loved to have the opportunity to listen to a Q&A with you! One of my favorite things to do is click on Education in the menu bar to see what new things I can learn. Being in "outstate" Minnesota we may not see all of the same challenges and opportunities, but I always appreciated reading your articles, perspectives, and points of view on many complex topics and ideas.

In my little part of the world it is my mission to spread the love of school finance, so I wish you all the best in spreading the love of education policy to the country!

beth Hawkins leaving MnPost-Education in Mn. suffers big loss

Dear Beth

I retired in 2002 from Mpls Public Schools ending 15 years as an Asst. Principal. My first graduate class for my Masters was Education Finance with Van Mueller. My other class was Politics in Education. I have been a LWVMN volunteer lobbyist in Education Finance and policy for these past 13 years and it has been very discouraging. I earned an A in Finance and a B in Politics.

There are hundreds of bills in our Education Omnibus Bills and hundreds of lobbyists making our Mn Miracle so lost because of the politics. It has been so difficult to watch my beloved district, MPS # ONE be so challenged by outside forces. I moved from Mpls to Richfield five years ago and my new district mirrors Mpls, St. Paul, Brooklyn Park, and many outstate school districts that are absorbing many new immigrants and serving over more than half of their students now from communities of color and as in Richfield, more than 50 % on free and reduced lunch. At the same time the legislators on the deciding committees for funding our schools come from wealthy districts or outstate with fewer students of color and less poverty--yet they make the decisions that are blaming and lack understanding that we need to care about all our children. I am so grieving the pitiful amount the Republicans gave from the House for education. Rep. Loon (Eden Prairie) the chair could not fund the early childhood, Universal Prek for 4 year olds or many other important bills that would help equalize our districts. Kent Pekel presented his new research from the Search Institute at the Parents United Summit last week. We have to look out for the socio-emotional needs of our children. Beth has also reported from her viewpoint as a parent of a high school student at SW and as special needs student which is so important in her journalism. Parents United lobbies first for all our children and grandchildren.

I hope whomever replaces Beth Hawkins will do so with that commitment for all Mn. Children.