Advance Local launches Alabama Education Lab

By George Rodrigue

Advance Local

New York City, USA


News organisations seeking to honour their commitments to public service have been trying something new for the past several years: Creating coverage teams dedicated to specific public-interest topics and funded by philanthropic gifts.

From Seattle to Fresno to Dallas to Boston, those coverage centers — sometimes called journalism labs — have offered their communities robust, solutions-oriented coverage that leverages the reach and expertise of traditional newsrooms.

This summer, Advance Local’s Alabama Media Group launched The Alabama Education Lab, dedicated to coverage that helps Alabama’s students receive the best possible education from kindergarten through high school.

Kelly Ann Scott, AMG’s vice president for content; Ruth Serven Smith, the editor who leads the lab team; and education reporter Trisha Powell Crain discussed the creation of the lab and their hopes for the future.

Why did you choose to launch an education lab, and why now?

Scott: We saw a need. Alabama has 720,000 students. Their futures are key to the future of the state. Our state has problems teaching and preparing students for successful lives. Education in Alabama is an $8 billion industry, yet nationally we collectively rank 52nd in math and 49th in reading. These problems are solvable. Educators, school districts, parents, and advocates are working every day to tackle them.

Smith: The education lab is a proven model that gives journalists a chance to work together and try new things, in concert with educators, parents, and students. It’s the perfect time to launch one here, as the state wrestles with competing ideas for improvement and considers how to use a massive influx of federal funding. A dedicated team of journalists paying attention to K-12 issues should improve accountability and help best practices spread across the state. 

Crain: The need for a team effort, with an eye to solutions and best practices, has been clear for years. Education is where all success either leaps from or falls flat. We’ve been struggling for so long, and so much of the struggle, I have found over the 20 years I’ve been paying attention, is because there is a lack of innovation and a lack of information about what works and what doesn’t. We can provide that information.

How will you staff the lab, and what topics will that staff cover at first?

Smith: We now have me, Trish, and two reporters — funded in part by Report for America — Rebecca Griesbach and Savannah Tryens-Fernandes, who focus on child health and wellness and equity issues in the state. We also have help from Monica Keener, a digital editor. Some topics of interest are teacher diversity and retention efforts, student discipline, special education, and child mental health, as well as the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Designated Alabama Education Lab reporters will focus on child health and wellness and equity issues in the state.
Designated Alabama Education Lab reporters will focus on child health and wellness and equity issues in the state.

How will this team’s coverage differ from standard education coverage?

 Scott: We cover the fight for our schools to be the best, so Alabama students have the best education possible. We’re dedicated to solutions-based reporting. We explore problems to find answers, learn from successes, and lend context. We identify Alabama’s wins and the wins of other education systems. We move beyond politics to examine outcomes, policies, and potential. 

Smith: Standard education coverage often focuses on meetings, events, and incremental developments. It often reflects the perspectives of administrators. By looking more broadly, toward solutions, we aim to put those smaller stories in context and interrogate proposed projects and ideas: How do we know if something is working? What are parents and students saying? We will draw more people into the conversation.

Some early stories we tackled examined whether a summer programme can help English learner students make big gains in school; how a superintendent achieved a high vaccination rate among her teachers in Tuskegee; and how schools are adjusting teacher workloads to improve morale. We also want to keep the focus on people — Savannah wrote a great story about how families of high-risk children prepared for the school year — and what’s actually happening in classrooms. Rebecca has written several stories about history education and curriculum.

Crain: We have reported for years on the chronic problems that besiege our K-12 education system. This gives us a chance to infuse new hope into a beleaguered system. Teachers, parents, administrators, policymakers, and decision-makers are hungry for deeply reported stories about innovation and best practices. They’re willing to put those solutions into action. 

Given the nearly US$3 billion in federal coronavirus relief that Alabama’s K-12 schools will receive over the next few years, helping our education community find what works could inspire institutional changes that last far beyond when that money runs out. 

What steps are you taking to ensure that coverage reflects the needs and interests of underserved communities?

Scott: This is a key value for us. We are building a diverse team through our staff, partners, freelancers, and contributors. We seek to elevate voices from all places and perspectives in Alabama. A tenet of our coverage philosophy is that by elevating voices and passing the mic, we hear, understand, and honour more stories and experiences. We also seek to frame our coverage through the lens of different communities.

We will engage in listening sessions throughout the state. We will meet audiences where they are, in the ways that they receive information. We plan to share and collaborate with any publication or news organisation in the state.

Crain: Historically, outcome data and opportunity-gap data prove that our underserved populations are Black children, poor children (which is most of our state), Native American children, and Hispanic children. Children with disabilities are terribly underserved, too. 

How will you sustain the labs financially?

Scott: We are seeking grant funding, underwriters, corporate sponsors, and community contributors, among other sources.

Smith: We have already received financial support from the Kettering Foundation, Education Writers Association, and Edunomics, a project from Georgetown University, with more we can announce soon. We’ll also ask people to contribute to support our Report for America staff. We hope giving readers different entry points to support our work — whether by subscribing to a newsletter, attending an event, talking to a reporter for a story, or supporting us financially — will help more Alabamians feel invested in the education of the state’s children.

Donations are often associated with non-profit newsrooms. What’s the argument for donor-supported journalism within a for-profit news organisation?

Scott: We are Alabama’s largest digital news organisation. We have reach. We have audience. We’re financially responsible. And we know how to leverage the products and platforms in front of us to help maximise impact and readership. When non-profits help fund innovation within a for-profit organisation like ours, we can leverage all that audience, reach, and skill into building our community’s future in a way that we couldn’t without their support.

Helping readers be part of that future is a key reason to support innovative, audience-driven work like this. We’re so grateful to the donors who value helping for-profit news organisations transform and build their future through their contributions.

Banner photo courtesy of Reagan Wells/Red Clay Media at Alabama Media Group.

About George Rodrigue

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