The Education Writers Association announced this week that the “Invisible Walls” series, by the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica, won first place in its National Awards for Education Reporting in the Investigative Reporting (Smaller Newsroom) category. EWA also named a series of stories by ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune examining how the pandemic exposed inequities in education as a finalist in the News (Large Newsroom) category. The awards competition recognizes the top education journalism across the country.
“Invisible Walls,” a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Connecticut Mirror, investigated the connection between long-standing systemic housing and school segregation in Connecticut. Reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas’ expertise in education reporting allowed her to quickly grasp how some towns used lucrative local contracts for school board legal work to pressure law firms to abandon affordable housing clients. In another examination of the state’s affordable housing crisis, Rabe Thomas followed the efforts of one local woman in her quest to find better schools and housing for herself and her five children — spotlighting how families with government housing vouchers have limited options for living in safer communities with higher-quality schools. It also showed the discrimination experienced by those who win housing vouchers through Section 8, the largest rental assistance program in the country.
The series of articles prompted the state’s U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, to call on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build more mixed-income housing in Hartford instead of focusing on housing entirely reserved for the poor. They also asked the federal agency to raise the amount Section 8 vouchers are worth so that voucher holders can afford to live in better neighborhoods and to increase the enforcement of fair housing laws to reduce discrimination.
“Outstanding reporting, showing why more education reporters should leave their silos and report at the intersections of their beats and other social inequity issues,” an awards judge said.
In “The Pandemic and Illinois Schools: A Digital Divide, Vulnerable Students and Hidden Data,” a collaboration between ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune, reporters Jodi Cohen and Jennifer Smith Richards produced a collection of stories focusing on the impact of the pandemic on some of the state’s most at-risk students. Working with ProPublica data reporter Haru Coryne, they conducted an in-depth examination of what the shift to remote learning would mean for children who live in rural areas with limited internet connections, finding that many students would not be able to access online education. Accompanying that statewide examination was a powerful look at one superintendent’s struggle to reach students in a district that spans 250 miles and contains just one retail store.
In other stories, Cohen and Smith Richards documented how hundreds of school districts throughout Illinois had failed to create online learning plans even though the state had encouraged them to do so years earlier; revealed that some families of special education students were being asked to agree to scaled-back remote learning plans for their children, stoking fears that they would lose services they desperately needed; and reported on the state’s reluctance to release information about COVID-19 infections in schools, breaking the news that dozens of districts had experienced outbreaks.
See a list of the category finalists and winners for the 2020 National Awards for Education Reporting here.