By Jon Funabiki
Rob Manning, an education reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting, has just proved something that we’ve argued all along: Journalists can still produce in-depth stories about important, complex issues in interesting and compelling ways. His secret weapon: kids … adorable kids.
A public radio reporter, Manning is one of the fellows in Renaissance Journalism’s inaugural fellowship program on educational equity or the “opportunity gap.” At a training conference, we asked the journalists to focus attention on the often overlooked, yet systemic education issues that shortchange many of our nation’s school children, especially those who come from poor, minority and immigrant backgrounds. We call our initiative “The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education.”
The state of Oregon has set a goal to improve the schools so that all members of the class of 2025 graduate from high school. That’s ambitious. Manning notes that 80 percent of the nation’s children graduate from high school, compared to only 69 percent in Oregon. To examine the state’s progress toward its goal, Manning has embarked on an equally ambitious reporting assignment: he plans to follow a group of students during their 12-year march toward high school graduation. The series is called “Class of 2025.”
The series includes a one-hour special, which aired on June 3., The documentary looks at 7-year-olds at East Portland’s Earl Boyles Elementary, a school that is ethnically and racially diverse and where many children qualify for free lunch. Manning makes it clear that from the start that he will cover some difficult problems. Children who are poor, who speak a foreign (non-English) language, or who aren’t ethnically white face are destined to face more barriers, and it starts early in school.
“Closing those gaps is a big task for teachers and parents who look after those kids,” Manning reports. “But remember, they are just 7-year-olds; funny, proud, curious, shy, energetic and loving.”
From there, Manning launches into the stories of five boys and girls, who in their own, adorable and incisive ways, teach us adults some lessons about the challenges they face in school. There’s Eva, who is often late to school (“I forgot my backpack,” she whispers to Manning) because her mother works the night shift at a diner. There are Octavio and Ashley, both of whom speak Spanish at home and English at school and therefore are inhibited from speaking up in class. There’s Josh, whose mother is concerned he will be stereotyped as disruptive because he a “high energy” African American boy. And there’s Raiden, who struggles because of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and fears that second grade will be even harder than first grade.
Manning has a wonderful way with kids. My favorite quote came from the girl who wrote her mother, “I love you more than cupcakes.” He mixes in comments from parents, school teachers and experts to unpack each child’s situation. He shows how each child’s story flags an opportunity gap issue that warrants more attention from those of us who can effect real change—the adults who run schools, vote on budgets, and approve policies and laws—and that will impact children for the rest of their lives.
And that’s the point of Manning’s investigation. The opportunity gaps don’t just hurt individual students. They have a huge effect on Earl Boyles Elementary School’s ability to effectively educate its entire student body. They mirror the challenge faced by our nation’s schools as they try to turn out well-educated graduates. As the wealth gap between rich and poor grows larger and neighborhoods and schools become more segregated, we are steadily creating a two-tiered education system, one for the haves and the other for the have-nots. This is a critical public policy challenge, one that won’t be solved by our current fixation on test scores. As Manning’s report shows, this is an important and complicated issue that profoundly affects real children like Eva, Octavio, Ashley, Josh and Raiden.