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I heard recently that the four small high schools on the Kearny High campus are slated to lose their nurse. While other schools have trimmed back a few days of nursing, the Kearny campus is going from a full time nurse to none. It’s the most dramatic cutback in nursing I’ve heard about in San Diego Unified.

What will that mean for Kearny? I wanted to find out by shadowing the school nurse to see what she did. The nurse was OK with the idea. But after a week of going back and forth with Laura Bellofatto, one of the Kearny principals, I was told in an email that “we are not moving forward with the visit.”

Why? I still don’t know. Getting shut out of schools happens to me much more often than I’d like. While California law does not require journalists to register with the principal to gain access to a school, San Diego Unified policies give principals the ultimate say over whether journalists are allowed in.

I can walk onto a school without principal permission. But teachers and other staff are often reluctant to talk to me if they haven’t heard from their principal that I’m coming to campus. So I ask first. And that has made a big difference in which stories I tell and how I tell them.

Some schools just don’t return my calls. I’ve been sending emails and phone messages to Michael Jimenez, the principal of Serra High, for a month. I don’t have any specific story in mind; I just want to visit the Tierrasanta school since I’ve never been there. Principal Jimenez, if you see this, please call!

Others tightly control media access. For instance, the King-Chavez charter schools require all media questions to go through their CEO. When I rung up a teacher after school to ask about how an infusion of federal money was impacting his classroom, he said he couldn’t talk to me directly about it. Instead I had to email CEO Tim Wolf my questions for the teacher, who emailed responses back to Wolf.

This might just sound like griping about people making it harder for me to do my job. (OK, a little bit of it is.) But the bigger reason that I get frustrated is that it makes it impossible to show what really happens in schools — good, bad, ugly or fabulous. Does it matter if Kearny loses its nurse or not? It’s really hard to tell if you can’t sit down and see what she does. And at a time when San Diego Unified could be cutting back significantly on nursing, it’s something that parents, elected officials and the public should know about.

This isn’t just a problem in San Diego. Linda Perlstein, who helps education reporters around the country as the public editor for the Education Writers Association, wrote last year:

There is no justification for filtering every single contact between journalists and educators through PR people, or creating a climate in which nobody feels free to talk about … anything. … The “same page” climate means that only the crankiest, most out-there gadflies have the guts to question or criticize, which is not as productive as an honest dialogue among everyone.

Thankfully, most schools are willing to let me in. For instance, Principal Stephanie Mahan at Carver, a K-8 school in Oak Park, was incredibly helpful when I wanted to know about their unusually small classes. Mahan spoke candidly with me, introduced me to teachers who talked to me on their own, and let me watch classes in action as long as I liked. That made the difference between hearing small classes matter to Carver and seeing why they do.

Of course, getting into a school doesn’t mean school leaders always love what I write. And I don’t expect schools to spend a lot of time accommodating me — that’s not their job and it shouldn’t be.

But I worry when public schools shut the media out. And frankly, it usually makes me way more suspicious than anything I find out when I actually get into schools.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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