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Laptops For Learning? The Story Behind Clayton County’s Alternative Education Plan

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As a journalist I’m always in search of the story behind the story; my tenure as a 2011 Soros Justice Media Fellow was no exception. This report is all that I cherish about working as a journalist – telling the stories that are often overlooked or ignored and helping to provide a platform for members of chronically underrepresented communities to share their experiences and perspective. What I thought would be a straightforward report turned into a labor of love literally and figuratively.

Just before starting my yearlong fellowship project on the pitfalls of discipline-based alternative schools in Georgia, I learned that on the heels of a $40 million budget deficit Clayton County (Ga.) school leaders had decided to issue laptops to its most challenged students – those enrolled in its alternative school – and would require them to study at home alone with mostly online help. The decision, which some observers argued was purely about saving money, immediately raised equity in education concerns in the community. With the support and guidance of colleague Jim Burress of WABE, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate, I set out in August of 2011 to chronicle the program’s progress. Shortly after recording initial interviews with the school system’s brass, they began ignoring my calls for follow-ups and site visits. As they say, “where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire,” so I pressed on for months in search of students enrolled in the program to interview. I’d tried everything to no avail – from staking out the Perry Learning Center’s parking lot to reaching out to local education and community leaders. As if the fellowship pressure were not enough, in the midst of this I was pregnant and unexpectedly placed on mandatory bed rest.

After giving birth to a healthy baby, I juggled researching and reporting in-between twilight feedings and fleeting blocks of sleep. Fittingly, in all it took approximately nine months (along with lots of impromptu babysitters) from my first interview to air date. The first big break came when I finally secured key interviews with some parents and students enrolled in the program. It also took some clever maneuvering over several months to finally locate the school instructors who would agree to speak to me (on condition of anonymity). This report, received top billing on the June 26, 2012 evening newscast on WABE. Shortly after it’s airing, Clayco Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley (whom had evaded my calls for interviews) resigned from his position. Although there is no direct connection, some Clayton County community and education leaders have asserted that this report helped shine a much-needed light on improprieties that had been rampant in the school system during Heatley’s tenure. With Burress coaching me all the way, I completed the audio track for the report days before my family’s cross-country move from Atlanta to Denver. So began my life as a mommy journalist!