Sunday, November 26, 2006

Where's the beef? Some fear there isn't any!

In advocacy journalism, the naysayer of last resort is labeled as “some”. If you can’t name an issue or can’t write a specific complaint, then you interview a few perpetual complainers, quote them (perhaps anonymously) and report that “some fear” a perilous and unforeseen consequence of what otherwise seems purely good news.

Sunday’s Boston Globe has a superb example of such unsubstantiated scare-mongering in a front page story ‘School makeovers, fueled by the middle class’, about startling progress in a few of Boston’s elementary schools, yet with the scary sub-headline that:

"As parents raise funds, standards, some fear impact on diversity"

In these schools, groups of parents have organized, done fund-raising, and supported teachers and the school administration to improve their children’s education. The amount of funding is non-trivial – tens of thousands of dollars per year, and it provides direct support to school instructional programs in art and music, among others.

Every person interviewed in the Globe story without exception is effusive in their praise for these groups of parents. Yet the tone of the story, starting with the headline above, is drenched with negativity. For example:

But even as the city heralds the new engagement, it has set off worries and debate about diversity and empowerment. Some fear that the efforts of the overwhelmingly white parents might leave black and Hispanic parents feeling excluded or, worse, alienated. In addition, the schools chosen by the parents for improvement have undergone changes in their racial composition, as word of mouth spreads and other white parents decide to send their children there.

“Some” strikes again. And who does this story include in “some”?

I can find only 3 quotes in the story which could be interpreted as such “fears”. Here is the first in context:

Bridget Fernandes, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher, was initially wary when the parents group formed in 2002. In her eight years at the school, she had never taught a white student; 90 percent of her students are Hispanic, 10 percent are black. She envisioned struggling to balance her energies between pleasing demanding middle-class parents and continuing to meet the needs of at-risk students.

Instead, the parents attended monthly teacher lunches, providing sandwiches from a neighborhood bakery, and surveyed teachers on their needs and the types of after-school programs they would like to see.

Still, Fernandes worries about the voices of black and Hispanic parents becoming weaker.

Devatating criticism, huh? The second concern is expressed by one of the activist parents themselves. Here it is in context:

At the Manning School, too, demographics have shifted dramatically. White students now make up half of the school; they are the majority in regular education classrooms, especially in the younger grades. The number of students from families at or below the poverty level has dropped from more than half in 2002 to less than a third today.

In contrast, 75 percent of Boston public school students are black or Hispanic; three-quarters are classified as poor under federal free and subsidized-lunch standards.

The shift has alarmed some parents, including those responsible for the changes, who say they chose the school in part because they wanted their children to learn in diverse classrooms.

"It's kind of like gentrification of the schools, and now I'm part of this problem," said Kathy Brown, whose son is in the fifth grade at Manning. "On the one hand, people are bringing good resources and have a lot of energy and interests and vision, but are we creating an environment where it's harder for other parents to participate?"

Brown, who works on affordable housing issues as a coordinator of the Boston Tenant Coalition, and her husband, Kevin Whalen , have tried to recruit more black and Hispanic families to the school, with limited success.

The third negative quote comes from another grateful parent. Again, here it is in context:

Teaka Isaac, who is African-American, recently attended a parent council meeting and was surprised to find only one other black parent there. She said she would like the school to be more diverse, but is grateful for the resources middle - class parents bring. Her fifth-grade son has been able to take violin lessons at the school because of a grant.

"I feel blessed to be in a school that can supplement a child's education," said Isaac, a single mother who lives in Dorchester and works in human resources for a healthcare company. "This is almost like the feel of a private school without the tuition.

"I got to give it to these white parents," she said. "They are very passionate about raising money. They move like a wheel. And sometimes minority parents might find it hard to find a way in."

There you have it! And these 3 are the only quotes in the story that match up with the bogey-man paragraph quoted above or the scary headline that “some fear impact on diversity”. The entire story quotes only 3 persons with any complaint about these parent groups and only quotes each of them only in a context of grateful praise for the work of these same parents. So how can you explain this article’s substantially negative tone? It is unsupported by the facts as reported.

Where’s the beef? Is the Globe once again trying to find a cloud to go with this silver lining? The complaints about this group of parents seem to originate more in the Globe newsroom than in the school community, and the primary complaint seems to be that “too many” of the activist parents are persons of pallor. If the Boston Globe wishes to advocate that point on their front page, it would strengthen their case if they could find at least a single person to quote in their story who at least seems to agree with them.

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