September 23, 2008

Covering Education Stories is Challenging, Rewarding

By Carole Tarrant [email protected] 981-3210

Now that we have settled into a new school year, it's a good time for me to share what goes into covering K-12 education for The Roanoke Times.

How we cover it has changed a bit in the past year -- for the good, I hope you will agree -- because we have added to our coverage in print and online.

Since March, you have seen expanded coverage of Roanoke Valley schools each Wednesday on the Your Community page inside the Virginia section. A new notebook column by reporter David Harrison, who covers K-12 schools in Roanoke, Salem and Roanoke County, anchors the education-themed page. That page also includes a weekly feature and highlights student achievements.

Reporter Anna Mallory provides similar coverage for readers in the New River Valley. You can find her reporting in The Current, the six-day tabloid we publish for New River Valley readers, as well as on her new blog, Chalk Dust (

I recently asked Anna and David to talk about how they go about covering the education beat, which is often one of the most challenging at a newspaper. They also offered the best ways for readers to tell us what's happening inside the classroom as well as in the communities that support each school.

Q: Where do you get your story ideas?

Anna Mallory: Often, they are from parents or teachers I meet or meetings I attend. Other times, they're from things happening outside the valley or items I observe while I'm in schools or around students.

David Harrison: I get my ideas from everybody associated with the school system: parents, students, teachers, administrators, school board members, bus drivers, interested citizens, etc.

I also spend a lot of time reading reports and looking at material from the school districts and the Virginia Department of Education. And I try to visit the schools.

Q: What do you like most about covering the education beat?

Anna: I enjoy visiting schools and meeting kids, especially when they're excited about what they're learning. At the same time, it allows me to see how tax dollars are being spent and how that's affecting a cross section of the community I live in.

It is also interesting for me, as someone who hasn't been a teacher, to see how different teachers approach instruction.

David: Education is one of the most satisfying beats at any newspaper because it lets reporters look at issues that really matter in people's lives. There are few better ways to judge how government works than to look at its public schools.

That's especially true for local governments in Virginia, which subsidize a larger portion of their school systems than local governments in many other states.

Q: Do you have a specific reader in mind as you write?

Anna: I try to write for parents. I know a lot of times educators can speak in almost a foreign language with all the acronyms and such. And while it can be difficult, I want to break that down for parents as much as possible.

David: The goal is to make the story relevant to every reader out there.

I understand that people who do not have children in schools may not be as passionate about education as people who do, but as taxpayers they have an interest in seeing that schools are well managed.

Q: What are the best ways for schools and parents to share their education news with The Roanoke Times?

Anna: Calling and e-mailing are always the most direct ways to contact anyone, but we have just started a blog, called Chalk Dust, that focuses on education, particularly issues affecting schools in the New River Valley.

The idea of Chalk Dust is to get people talking about things that are happening in schools, whether they are budget cuts, teacher retirements or a school party.

Parents and students are the people interacting in schools ... so I always want to hear from them. With the blog, we can hear from anyone about real happenings without fear of missing a call or losing an e-mail in the stacks.

David: The best way is to give me a call at 777-3523. Or send me an e-mail at [email protected]

The best stories come from phone or e-mail tips. Of course, I can't guarantee that every tip will turn into a story, but I would still like to hear from people.

If you have events you would like publicized, you may also contact Jennie Tal, who puts together the education calendar in Wednesday's paper on page B2. She can be reached at 981-3269 or [email protected]

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