introductions

Get to know Chalkbeat’s new Colorado bureau chief

Erica Meltzer (photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat).

There’s a new byline — and bureau chief — at Chalkbeat Colorado.

Erica Meltzer started in the role Jan. 8. As part of her duties, Erica will cover the state government beat for us, continuing a legacy that began a decade ago with the launch of EdNews Colorado.

EdNews founder Alan Gottlieb and statehouse reporter Todd Engdahl had no shortage of things to chronicle that year, including the passage of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, a sweeping bill that has had a lasting impact on public education in Colorado.

What was once EdNews Colorado is now Chalkbeat, a national education news organization dedicated to covering efforts to improve education for all students, especially those from low-income families.

We introduced Erica briefly before, and explained how her arrival coincides with a number of exciting changes at Chalkbeat as we continue to grow. Now, with Erica officially on board and four stories already to her name, we thought you should get to know her a little better.

We talked with her about how she got started in journalism, her favorite stories, and how she’ll approach the job.

Let’s start with your journalism origin story. What inspired you to become a journalist?

When I was in sixth grade, we had an assignment to pick a job and research it and give a presentation. I can’t actually remember what prompted me to pick reporter, but by the time I was done with that assignment, I wanted to be a reporter, and I still can’t think of a better job. I’ve met so many people I never would have met otherwise and been privileged to hear and tell their stories. I get to ask all the questions I’d be too polite or shy to ask if I didn’t have a notebook in my hand. And every day is different.

I worked on my high school paper, where we took our job as the only journalists with access to the student community very seriously. We wrote about air quality problems in our school, and we wrote about how the administration responded when a student murdered his parents. Asking tough questions from the relatively powerless position of a student taught me a lot.

What are your favorite kinds of stories to tell?

I really like stories that combine human interest with policy issues. Fortunately for me, there are a lot of stories like this in education. I really believe in the value of journalism to help people be informed citizens. We can do that through stories that show how policy will affect ordinary people and through stories that put faces to these questions we all wrestle with.

And then sometimes I like to take off my policy nerd hat and do something weird and fun. At my last job, I interviewed an Elvis impersonator who serves as a kind of unofficial historian for Colfax Avenue. He had this crazy, stream-of-consciousness style of talking, and I just wanted to channel that for readers so they could enjoy him as much as I did.

In your introductory newsletter, you relayed an exchange you had with a local TV reporter of your acquaintance about joining Chalkbeat. This person said, “Chalkbeat, huh? You’re going to be getting into the minutiae.” And your response was: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Then you went on to explain that you’ve found some really good stories in small things. Does anything in particular come to mind, an example you can share?

When I worked in Tucson, I covered county government, and I would keep an eye on all sorts of lower-level board and committee agendas. At some point I noticed something like the fourth horse property coming before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in six months and called up a source who worked in the planning department to ask if there was any particular reason these horse properties all needed variances. It turned into a really good story about how the community was changing. All these properties with livestock had once been way out of town where nobody cared what they did, and now they were surrounded by subdivisions and all sorts of things that had never been a problem were suddenly a problem.

Sometimes journalism involves noticing a loose thread and pulling on it and seeing what happens.

You came to us from Denverite, a local news startup that has done some creative things inviting readers into the news conversation. Can you give an example of that working well, and maybe share some lessons you’ve learned about how to better involve readers in stories?  

Denverite has an occasional feature called Readers’ Choice that involves asking readers what stories they’d like to see covered — sometimes we did this as a poll with a discrete set of options — and asking readers to submit questions on those topics. This served as the springboard for a lot of good stories — everything from why Denver has these flagstone sidewalks that trip us up to what’s so bad about gentrification.

Sometimes people who work in the policy realm bring certain assumptions to the table, and those assumptions bleed over to the reporters who spend a lot of time hanging out with those insiders. Hearing from readers provided this reality check about what people know and don’t know and what they’d like to see explored further. It’s a way of getting outside that “everybody knows” trap, and it opens us up to new ways to approach familiar topics.

And of course, readers know a lot of things that we don’t know. They live and work in the communities we cover. They’re teachers, or they have kids in school. So they’re a great resource.

You covered the legislative session for Denverite last year, and now you’ll be covering education issues under the dome for Chalkbeat. How would you describe your approach to covering the statehouse beat?

Covering any government body, I like to keep the focus on how people will be affected by what that body is doing. Sometimes that requires a turn-of-the-screw story on some action at the committee level, but more often, I’m going to be looking for the big storylines and themes of this session and trying to put bills into context with the larger discussion of school quality and equity in access to education. By nature, I’m more interested in policy than in political intrigue, but of course politics is how we get things done in a democracy, so sometimes the political story is the story.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers as you begin this role?   

I’ll be frank. I haven’t covered education in-depth in a long time, and a lot has changed. I’m reading a lot and trying to talk to as many people as I can get up to speed. If there’s something you’d like to see covered or if you have feedback — positive or negative — about something I or someone on our team has written, please get in touch with me. I want to hear from you.

Erica Meltzer can be reached at [email protected] or 303-446-7635. Follow her on Twitter here.

An Introduction

Indiana education is evolving. Here’s how Chalkbeat is growing to keep you informed.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools students line up at CFI 27.

When I first came to Indianapolis eight years ago, the failures of the city’s largest school district were on full display.

Indianapolis Public Schools was losing thousands of students to township, charter, and private schools. The continued dismal performance of several district schools put them on the brink of unprecedented state takeover.

Marion County was home to so many children living in poverty that they could fill the Indianapolis Colts’ football stadium, the local newspaper calculated, and then form a line outside it more than three miles long.

Among the first people I met in the city was an Indianapolis teacher who went Dumpster-diving at suburban schools for classroom supplies.

Still, the city was coming together in critical ways to support students and schools. Nonprofit organizations filled gaping needs, with school supplies, uniforms, and mentoring services. Education leaders searched for solutions as small-scale as targeted neighborhood initiatives and as big-picture as completely making over the entire school district.

Today, there’s a lot that has changed — and a lot that hasn’t. People across the state are re-thinking public education. Yet in many places, our students, teachers, and schools continue to face many of the same challenges.

I recently joined Chalkbeat as the new Indiana bureau chief to lead our coverage of the city’s schools and the state’s education policy landscape.

I’m coming from the Indianapolis Star, where I reported on education, politics, and diversity issues. I’d collaborated with Chalkbeat on stories about school integration and English-language learners.

I’ll be overseeing the work of our Chalkbeat Indiana reporting team: Shaina Cavazos covers state education policy, dissecting complex legislation and the politics that drive changes. Shaina has been investigating the underperforming Indiana Virtual School, raising ethical questions about its spending of public dollars, and revealing it hired few teachers and graduated few students.

Reporter Dylan Peers McCoy has been following the dramatic changes as Indianapolis Public Schools embraces charter partnerships, turning over control of some of its schools to outside groups.

I’ll also be contributing my own reporting, with a focus on charter schools and Indiana’s recent moves to publicly fund early childhood education, a topic that has gained greater attention with research showing how critical a child’s first years are to future academic success.

We’ll continue to do what Chalkbeat has always strived to do: provide strong, independent, in-depth coverage of efforts to improve public education for all kids, especially those from low-income families.

Please let me know about stories you’d like to see us write, or share feedback about anything our team has written. We’d love to hear from you.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Reading

Here are five Chalkbeat stories to read this Presidents Day

PHOTO: Getty Images
A statue of George Washington with the American flag in the background in front of Independence Hall.

Happy Presidents Day! We’re off today, and we hope you’re enjoying a three-day weekend too.

I’m planning to spend part of today catching up on Chalkbeat stories. Since last summer, when I started as executive editor, I’ve felt like a student again. I’ve never worked in education journalism before, so I’ve tried to read as much as I can — and there’s no better place to start than Chalkbeat’s reporting.

In honor of the holiday celebrating George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and our other past presidents, I’ve rounded up a special reading list — for myself and for you, our trusted Chalkbeat community.

Two stories that take place in schools named after U.S. presidents:

Why one Brooklyn high school is making a big bet on teacher training

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

Two stories about local education leaders (even though they probably won’t ever get a national holiday in their honor):

Can this Detroit principal help her students learn quickly enough to save her school?

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

And one recent story that has nothing to do with Presidents Day but is so terrific I had to include it:

Tight-knit and tightly budgeted: Inside one of Denver’s smallest schools

-Bene

P.S. Got other education stories you think I should read? Send them my way!