This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Media Drops the Ball on School Coverage

One of the explanations by the School Committee as to how a plan as consequential as the middle school realignment could have progressed to the brink of a vote with so little public awareness is that the newspapers no longer attend their meetings.

President Annemarie Cesa has stated that she invited both the Salem News and Beverly Citizen to all three committee meetings this week, as well as several earlier Committee of the Whole meetings at which the plan was discussed.  They attended none, and have yet to write a word about the plan.

And while the monthly public meetings at City Hall are televised by BevCam, it's the working Committee of the Whole, and Finance & Facility meetings at which much of the discussion about major initiatives such as this are worked out.  These meetings, while public, are held in a small meeting room at the Memorial Building that isn't at all inviting for public attendance, and are not televised. And the public is rarely aware of the agenda, unless it specifically affects their school or program.

In the past, these meetings were generally covered by the newspapers. Until recently the Salem News had a reporter dedicated to the schools that attended most meetings, and would have followed up on a plan such as this much sooner. That position was eliminated several years ago for budgetary reasons.  Since then the general Beverly reporter (who is reportedly on unpaid furlough himself this week as a cost-savings move) has covered any school stories that come to the paper's attention, as well as just about every other story in the city.

The Citizen's reporting has been spotty for years, sometimes missing stories completely.

The situation is not unique to Beverly. Dan Kennedy, a nationally-recognized media critic and blogger who resides in Danvers has written often of the sorry state of community newspapers, and specifically the repeated cuts by the parent companies of both the Citizen and the Salem News. Just this week, Kennedy posted the story of James Craven, a laid off Gatehouse Media (the Citizen's parent company) reporter, who blogged a farewell diatribe on the newspaper's website that summed up the effects of repeated cuts to local media on public awareness of local government:
The late Philip Meyer put it best when he observed that the decay of newspaper journalism creates problems not just for the business but also for society. The problem is basic: to make democracy work, citizens need information.
The end result, if you will, is that as news staffs are cut, the responsibility for staying informed will fall more to you – the reader. If a reporter cannot be at a Harbor Commission meeting, a Finance Commission meeting or even a meeting of the City Council, then you – Joe Citizen – will have to be there.
No more watching Dancing with the Stars, taking time to read a good book or spending time with the youngsters. After work, you will have to head for those civic meetings where decisions are made that might change your life, because, if you do not go – who will?
But blaming the media or the community for the lack of awareness of this plan is a bit of a dodge on the committee's part.  If they truly wanted broad public input into this plan, there were many methods at their disposal to get it out: district website, connect-ed, or issuing a press release (which some press outlets would have printed verbatim).

Going forward, the Committee needs to acknowledge that the mainstream media no longer has the resources to cover the schools as they once did, and find their own methods to better communicate to the public.

The story got out when we posted it, because this website is well connected to the community's social media structure.  We post a story, share it with our network and on Twitter, and within hours, those sources have shared it further, and it is public knowledge. But we never aimed to be the voice of the school district or a breaking news source, but rather a way for the community's views on school issues to be shared.

At Wednesday's School Committee meeting, Cesa brought up our suggestion of a committee or district Facebook page, and most committee members seemed resistant to the idea. But we were pleased to hear Assistantant Superintendent Maryellen Duffy later state that the Boston Public Schools were having good results with their Facebook page.  They use the site for sharing, not just school committee news, agendas, and meeting times, but all type of information about the district and its schools.

Beverly has a high school that is aspiring to be a technological leader, and doing a pretty good job of it. The school's athletic department has made very effective use of social media over the past year, sharing game information, scores, and photos. The high school administration is embracing it as well. There is no reason the school committee and district administration can't too.

Many in this community care deeply about our school system and want to be involved. But we don't always have the time to ferret out information or attend every working school committee meeting. In the age of social media, and with a diminished mainstream press, the district needs to embrace the technology that exists for getting news out, and encouraging public awareness.

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