Students take part in a science class at Vista High School. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

For subsisting on taxpayer dollars, public schools are surprisingly difficult to get into. That’s true for the average citizen, parent and education reporter.

Kristina Rizga, formerly of Mother Jones magazine, once remarked that it’s easier for reporters to embed with an Army unit than to go behind the scenes in a public school. While I’ve never embedded with a military unit, after four-and-half years covering education in San Diego I can certainly attest that getting access to schools and information is no easy feat.


There are a lot reasons for this — some of them defensible. For example, school districts are bound by law to protect the confidential information of both students and staff members. Giving reporters or other members of the public unfettered access could jeopardize their right to privacy — a concern that’s become especially acute for schools that serve large numbers of undocumented families.

Teachers, perhaps wary of how they might be portrayed by the press, tend to close their doors to education reporters. Principals — like those surveyed by San Diego Unified this year — might fear they’ll be demoted or disciplined if they air the district’s dirty laundry in public.

Defensible or not, these things make it harder for the public to understand what actually happens in classrooms, where the money is spent, or why students are falling through the cracks. And if education reporters aren’t let into schools, the public can’t appreciate the accomplishments or understand the challenges that schools face.

It’s not just journalists who struggle for access.

For years, principals at local schools have issued stay-away orders to parents they deem disruptive. Those who get them are banned from campus for 14 days, and principals have discretion over what constitutes disruptive behavior. Some parents say principals can abuse this practice and ban parents from campus for simply asking too many questions.

This is problematic given the fact that public schools are, well, public. Parents and reporters have a right to that information — even if a school district doesn’t act like that’s the case.

Last month, we took a look at how San Diego Unified established itself as the public agency most hostile to transparency.

We listed plenty of examples. The district takes, on average, 80 days to complete requested records (media outlets waited 110 days, on average). It illegally withheld emails we sought and was forced to pay more than $52,000 for fees that our attorney accrued while fighting for the documents. And parents across the district have expressed frustration with their inability to get answers to basic budget questions.

But while San Diego Unified has been singled out for its hostility — last year it won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Wall Award, which recognizes a public agency that displays an outstanding lack of transparency — this type of behavior is not uncommon for school districts.

“Education reporters all over face similar issues,” said Alexander Russo, a media watchdog who writes about hits and misses in education reporting at The Grade.

Russo said lack of access has long been a favorite complaint of education reporters, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

“I tend to feel that too much emphasis is placed on easy access to schools, because access is almost always conditional,” Russo said. Besides, he added, “I’m not convinced that sitting in the back of the classroom is as valuable as a lot of education reporters think it might be.”

Access journalism is an easy trap for reporters to fall into. It refers to a practice — often implicit — of gaining entry in exchange for favorable coverage. In the process, reporters sacrifice their independence and shy away from spotlighting problems. It’s a concern for all reporters, but especially acute when access to people and information is tightly controlled.

But, as Russo points out, reporters don’t have to actually get into schools to do their jobs.

“If you can’t get into the school, that doesn’t mean your job is done and you can’t do anything. It just means you need to think creatively about finding information: Stand on the sidewalk, go to the parking lot, talk to people coming out of the building. As a reporter, it’s your job to find a way,” Russo said.

Russo’s right. There’s always another way to learn about a school — whether it means making contact with people who work there, meeting parents who send their kids there, or filing a Public Records Act Request for specific information and waiting weeks (or months) for the district to respond.

But let’s say none of those options appeal to you. Maybe you’re a parent and you just want an unfiltered view of the school to which you’ve entrusted your child.

For me, there’s really only one path to full access, and it’s an approach that works for parents as well as reporters: Building a relationship with the principal.

Each school is a little world unto itself, and the principal is its ruler. They’re still accountable to the superintendent, but for the most part principals have a great deal of autonomy over who comes in its doors.

This cuts both ways, of course. Get on the wrong side of a principal and you might earn yourself a stay-away order. But I’ve found that earning a principal’s trust is the surest path to getting an up-close view of a school or hearing its real story — the good, bad and the ugly.

In Other News

San Diego Unified is moving forward on a plan to weigh changes to school board elections

This week San Diego Unified school board members approved a list of 24 people — made up of students, parents and union representatives — to advise the school board and make recommendations on election reforms.

Between now and May, the committee will consider a number of changes to the school board election process, including whether to add more members to the five-person school board, set a two-term limit, replace at-large elections with district-only elections, or allow 16-year-olds and undocumented residents to vote in school board elections.

Catch up on the conversation by checking out this previous Learning Curve newsletter. Andrew Simmerman, a communications professional and educational consultant, also wrote an op-ed Thursday arguing in favor of some of those reforms.

Short on cash, the district cut technology support staff and sold off buses

Thanks to a pair of school bond measures in San Diego Unified, schools across the district have received technology upgrades, including smart boards in classrooms and new devices for students. But there’s a problem: IT staffing cuts mean the district has fewer people who can service those devices when problems arise.

“None of these broken computers fix themselves,” said Nat Krieger, one of five technicians supporting IT needs at nearly 200 schools. “There’s no magic here. It takes human beings to fix them.”

Meanwhile, the school board sold off 11 of its school buses for $825,000.

The sales come as no surprise. The district has slashed busing by roughly half since 2010 and the buses are underused. But the move also underscores the fact the school board has deprioritized busing in the past 10 years, which has implications for attendance and the demographic makeup of schools.

Ed Reads of the Week

Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need the Most Help (New York Times)

Online courses, which allow students to complete coursework in a computer lab or at home, have been a boon to school districts across the country. Some online classes are “blended,” meaning students spend some of their class time with teachers. In others, students complete all work on their own.

But a mounting body of evidence suggests that online courses hurt students who are least proficient and most in need of skilled classroom teachers. That concern is even more acute with online credit recovery courses, which allow students to skip over sections and complete courses in a fraction of the time it takes to complete a semester-long course with a teacher.

And there’s another concern the NYT story doesn’t consider: Online courses can be shockingly easy to cheat. Last year, students at East Village High school even showed me how they do it.

Dozens of California districts with worst test scores excluded from extra state help (CALmatters)

The state’s new dashboard system rates districts in several categories that impact student learning. It offers extra help to school districts struggling academically, but only if low scores are coupled with high suspension or low graduation rates.

Experts say part of the problem is that suspension and graduation rates are susceptible to manipulation by districts that want to avoid scrutiny. And with limited resources, some of the students most in need of extra support won’t get them under the new system.

No oversight for homeschooling in California (KPCC)

Earlier this month, a horrifying story came out of Riverside County, where parents are accused of abusing their 13 children by starving and chaining them to a bed. In the wake of the story, some questioned how such depravity could go undetected.

It turns out the children were homeschooled, which is treated like any other private school. In California, homeschooling is loosely regulated — if at all.

Alarmed and Ashamed: 3 School Shootings in 25 Hours — and All We Can Say Is the Active Shooter Training Helped (The 74)

“Three schools, two days, 19 casualties, two dead. And yet cable news doesn’t even break into its regularly scheduled beltway blather. We’re barely moved to tweet.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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