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.

Inside Chalkbeat

‘If they know we regularly care’: Our New York bureau and its newest reporter are listening up

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high-fives students at P.S. 78 on Staten Island as they leave after the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

A new name has been popping up at Chalkbeat as our organization continues to grow, and the byline belongs to Reema Amin.

This latest addition to the New York reporting team, which I began overseeing as bureau chief in September, was off to attend her first press conference — held by the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers union chief — before her first day on the job had ended.

She was instrumental to our reporting on the teachers contract, announced last week, and has already visited Albany, where she will be reporting occasionally on state education policy. Like all members of the New York bureau, she contributed this week to our joint reporting project with ProPublica, exploring whether counselors in New York City schools can really meet students’ needs, especially as student homelessness has reached an all-time high.

Chalkbeat reporter Reema Amin

And most recently, she looked at how a proposed rule change by the Department of Homeland Security could, if adopted, discourage immigrant families from applying for benefits, such as Medicaid, which in turn could threaten the financial viability of the city’s school-based health clinics.  

Reema grew up in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, and has worked as a breaking-news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She most recently covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press, a newspaper serving communities in the southeastern corner of the state, and co-hosted a politics podcast for the paper.

In Virginia, Reema had just begun covering a rural county when she happened to attend a school board meeting and noticed a distraught mother, whom no one was listening to. Reema did listen. Jessica Leitch had been struggling to get her autistic son the special education services he needed — and qualified for.

Parents like Leitch, Reema said, “keep meticulous records” — they must to advocate for their children. Using this paper trail to start her own investigation, Reema sought out other parents and made public records requests and soon was combing through hundreds of pages of documents to uncover how the district led the region in special education complaints.

One of Reema’s key strategies as a reporter, she says, is to keep in touch with as many different people — parents, teachers, students, education officials and policymakers — as possible on a daily basis. “If they know we regularly care,” she says, “they’re more likely to share” their own experiences and concerns, a philosophy Chalkbeat also embraces.

Reema is joining a veteran Chalkbeat news team in New York.

Reporter Christina Veiga, who joined the bureau in 2016 from the Miami Herald, where she worked for more than a half-dozen years covering city government and later the Miami-Dade Schools, has kept Chalkbeat readers apprised of the latest news about the schools chancellor, the debate over the admissions process to the city’s specialized high schools, and the unfolding push for greater integration in districts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.

Alex Zimmerman, who has written for the Village Voice, the Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among other publications, also joined Chalkbeat in 2016. He has reported on the specialized high school debate, on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal and community schools program, the largest of its kind in the country, and whether heavy investments in wraparound social services in schools can really move the needle on students’ academic achievement. He has also provided occasional dispatches from the city’s charter-school sector and explored the challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Our story editor, Carrie Melago, works with me editing stories and helping guide coverage (as well as serving as story editor for our Indiana bureau). Carrie previously honed her sharp news instincts as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.

My own interest in education began in New York and later Newark, cities where I taught taught for seven years. (I’m also the story editor for Chalkbeat’s Newark bureau.)  Inequities I witnessed as a teacher inspired me to write about these experiences, which in time led to my reporting on education for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Over these same years, the city’s schools — and education nationally — have experienced seismic shifts. In my first classroom in the 1990s, teachers still wrote with chalk, there was no school email or classroom computers. Now teachers can plan lessons — or marches — on Facebook; parents can vent about busing woes on Twitter, and students are regularly part of the online discussion. And some things we really wish had changed haven’t: rates of childhood poverty, homelessness and segregation.

In the New York bureau, we will be tackling some of these subjects anew or as part of our ongoing reporting. We will be making deliberate efforts to engage more with the communities we cover and to amplify their voices. Christina will be looking deeper into one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives — his push to rapidly expand early-childhood education. And building on Reema’s and Alex’s past reporting on students with disabilities, we will be taking a harder look at special education in the city. And as classrooms remain the heart of any school, we will be spending more time there. We want to hear from you –whether you are a teacher, a parent, a student, or those responsible for imagining and implementing education policy. Stay tuned for news of our first listening tour, where we come to you to hear your concerns and questions, so we can then go out and address them through our reporting.  

We welcome feedback — about the stories we’ve done, the stories we’re doing and those we’ve missed and should now pursue. You can always reach out to [email protected]. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to one or all of our newsletters. We look forward to the continuing conversation.

Inside Chalkbeat

Meet the talented people who will help us push Chalkbeat into the future

As the new school year kicks off, we’re both looking forward and looking back.

This has been a significant year for us. We covered important stories, broke big news, and launched coverage in two new cities, Newark and Chicago. We also expanded our team. We’re now one of the country’s largest nonprofit newsrooms, and certainly one of the largest telling local stories — at a time when local coverage is shrinking across the country.

In the year ahead, we will continue to tell the story of education in America by investigating both local realities and the national trends that shape them. We kicked things off this summer with a listening tour (stay tuned for more of what we heard at those events). We’re also taking some big steps toward strengthening the other parts of our work. We’re going to further diversify our revenue so we can guarantee the very best and always entirely independent coverage of public schools for a long time to come. We’re going to invest in technology and design, to help us reach and engage more readers. And we’re going to chart a clear path for the significant growth we need to take on to step up to the challenges of the times.

To do that, we’ve brought on a new cohort of leaders in the news business. I am so thrilled to introduce Maria Archangelo, our new senior director of partnerships, who will lead the charge in diversifying and growing our revenue; Becca Aaronson, our new director of product, who will guide strategic investment in our core technology and internal capabilities; and Alison Go, who is working with us to design Chalkbeat’s growth plan.

We are also expanding our national team with the addition of Francisco Vara-Orta as a national reporter and data specialist for Chalkbeat. Francisco’s skills will give Chalkbeat the ability to more closely cover several organizations working to influence schools nationwide and enable us to better use data to find and tell stories in all of Chalkbeat’s bureaus.

 

Maria Archangelo

Photo: Alan Petersime

Maria comes to Chalkbeat after working as publisher and executive director of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a 24-year-old nonprofit education news organization. Most of her 30-year career has been spent in traditional media. She worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and an editor at the Sun’s community newspapers, and was editor of the daily newspaper in the capital of Vermont. Dismayed by the changes in the industry, Maria decided to devote herself to growing revenue for journalism and joined the business side. From 2006 to 2012 she served as publisher of the award-winning Stowe Reporter in Stowe, VT. She also helped lead an innovative international community magazine project and took a (brief) side trip into communications and marketing. She graduated from Temple University with bachelor of arts in journalism.

Becca Aaronson

Photo Alan Petersime

Before Chalkbeat, Becca spent nearly eight years at fellow nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune, where she was their first-ever product manager. She was responsible for creating and managing the Tribune’s product roadmap, leading their website redesign, conducting user research, and ensuring that technology products aligned with audience and brand strategy. Over the course of her Tribune tenure, she wore many hats, including softball coach of The Runoffs. She co-founded the Tribune’s data visuals team, where she designed, built, and managed several award-winning investigative projects. And while covering health care from 2012 to 2014, she gained 5,000 Twitter followers on the day she live-tweeted the Wendy Davis abortion filibuster. Becca has a bachelor’s degree in cultural theory from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif.

Alison Go

Alison is working on growth initiatives across various teams at Chalkbeat. Previously, she was a product manager at Facebook, Amazon (Audible), and Rent the Runway, and in a former life, she was a journalist at U.S. News & World Report (covering higher ed!), the Boston Globe, and the San Jose Mercury News. Alison received her MBA from Wharton and undergrad degree from the University of Michigan.

Francisco Vara-Orta

Francisco joins Chalkbeat in September as a national reporter and data specialist. He was previously at Education Week, where he covered philanthropy and parent engagement and managed data projects, and an open records researcher at Investigative Reporters and Editors. Before that, he reported for the San Antonio Express-News, Houston Chronicle, and the Austin Business Journal, among other news organizations. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in his hometown of San Antonio, and earned a master’s degree in data and investigative journalism from Mizzou as a Thurgood Marshall Fellow. Follow him @fvaraorta.