It was 2001, and Mayor Richard M. Daley had recently named Arne Duncan as the new Chief Executive Officer of the school system. I had been at CPS since 1996, working on the Chicago Educator, the district-run newspaper that Paul Vallas created when he became CEO in 1995. So I got to visit schools in every neighborhood in the city and talk to teachers and students about what was going on with them. And then I got to write about it.
My new job: media relations. I went from being a guy out in schools, asking my own questions, to a guy stuck at his desk, having to answer (or not answer) someone else’s questions.
At least that’s the way I felt about it at the time. And a lot of that had to do with how the media part of our office was run before Arne took over. Vallas was pretty open with and accessible to the media. The rest of the system? Not so much. And I got the sense that the “media relations” people in our office did not exactly love their job, which essentially consisted of playing bob-and-weave with the notoriously gruff and surly Chicago press corps.
I was never a very good bobber or weaver.
But then a funny thing happened. We started answering our phones. Sometimes on the first or second ring! Even when we knew it was a reporter on the other end! That was the revolutionary edict of our new communications director, Peter Cunningham (who’s now the Executive Director at Education Post, the nonprofit that I work for).
Bob-and-weave became listen-and-help.
So I ended up with just a different one-of-the-best jobs in CPS. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was stressful. It was 24/7. It was occasionally combative. But it was also a lot of fun. And I learned a ton–about how important it is for there to be as complete of a picture as possible about what’s happening in our schools and about how to help the media get and report that picture.
I also learned that there are often lots of people at the district who aren’t terribly interested in openly sharing all of the pieces of the complete picture. And that’s somewhat understandable. It can be a blurry, messy, and troubling picture at times. And there is never a shortage of haters and critics (especially in strong reform districts) who are looking to bring attention to the mess and trouble for their own political gain.
And we certainly had our share of blurry, messy, and troubling stories when I was at CPS. But we had our say in them; they were almost always fair and accurate, and they were a real part of the picture.
We also had the chance to tell and show reporters about the uplifting and eye-opening things going on in our schools. They want to show the complete picture, too.
That’s what happens when you answer your phone and open your schools.
After President Obama won the 2008 election, Arne was named education secretary, and new leadership took over at CPS. Shortly thereafter, the Chicago Reader’s media critic, Michael Miner, wrote a column about how the district’s beat reporters had become frustrated with how access to schools and information had tightened under new CEO Ron Huberman. It’s a blow-by-blow account of how bob-and-weave—and a restricted view of schools—can get you knocked flat on your back. Huberman didn’t last two years.
I left Chicago for the Denver Public Schools in June of 2009, joining Superintendent Tom Boasberg about six months after he took over for US Sen. Michael Bennet, and I ran the communications office there for five years. Tom is coming up on his eighth anniversary leading DPS, and the city has elected a unanimously pro-reform Board of Education.
Now, with the explosion of social media, there are more ways than ever to fill in the picture of what’s happening in our cities’ schools. And this will be a site to help do that. It will be a spotlight and discussion of how districts and the media—traditional and social—are telling the stories of city schools. I’m hoping lots of people who work in and care about those schools will check it out regularly and share their thoughts and experiences.
Because only when we show and take in the full picture can we see the best way forward for our schools and our kids.