photo courtesy of OPB
In 2012, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber declared an ambitious goal: to have 100 percent of high school students graduate in the year 2025. That same year, the class of 2025 entered kindergarten. Oregon Public Broadcasting set out to cover this next generation of students as they grow, learn, and move step by step to graduation.
“It came out of a conversation that I had with the Managing Editor, Eve Epstein; I said ‘wouldn’t it be great if someone actually tracked a group of kids as they enter kindergarten and go through school?’” explained Rob Manning, lead reporter on the project. “Eve was the one to say, why don’t we do that?”
The team decided to produce a web series utilizing radio, print and video elements that would cover the K through 12 journey of one distinct group of students as way to put a face to the state’s objective.
“Eve was particularly interested in a way to hold the state accountable and really put kids in the center instead of saying this is just some goal that a politician is just going to walk out and announce,” he explained.
Once Manning received approval from his editors, he and Public Insight Journalist Amanda Peacher set out to choose an elementary school. They decided on Earl Boyles Elementary School in Portland.
“The reason that I liked that school was the demographic profile,” Manning explained. “They had a high number of low-income students and a significant number of students who come from families that don’t speak English at home.”
Earl Boyles principal Ericka Guynes was “overly enthusiastic” when Manning and Peacher approached her about featuring her school.
“I’ve had the experience as a journalist dealing with schools with principals that would run screaming from that idea,” he said. “Right off the bat I knew I found the right place.”
Manning’s previous work as an education reporter in Portland really helped him establish credibility with the school’s staff and faculty.
“He’s really sensitive to the demands on teachers as well as the realities of working in a public school,” Peacher explained. “When I went in to meet with the teachers individually to talk about parent and family engagement, they all trusted Rob already so that helped a lot.”
Getting buy-in from the families at Earl Boyles was also an integral part of the story. Peacher and Manning contacted all 80 families of the original cohort of Earl Boyles kindergartners, explaining the project and looking for participants that might be interested. Of that group, 28 families signed on, representing a wide array of ethnic and racial backgrounds similar to the demographic make-up of the school.
“Some families immediately were really familiar with OPB and had a sense for what we were trying to do, but others didn’t really understand our programming,” said Peacher. “We had to explain not only the goals of the project but also a little about who we are and what we do as a news organization.”
After consent forms were signed, Manning and Peacher began getting to know the parents and their children.
“First graders tend not to be great talkers, but some of the quiet kids are really thoughtful and can really answer questions,” Manning explained. “You need to be willing to give it a little time; sometimes the best conversations happen the fourth or fifth time.”
Once the students got used to Manning and Peacher, they began to open up. Establishing strong relationships allowed Manning to uncover the challenges these families face outside of the classroom. The series tackles a wide array of issues from bilingual education to health and illness. Manning says that above all, he strives to keep the focus on the children.
“I think the theme that united everything from the radio and web is that we keep the kid in the center,” he explained. “It’s very much like we’re following the kids, and we’re hoping that viewers long term will form a relationship with them and will want to see what’s next.”
As the class of 2025 now enters the 2nd grade, Manning is prepared to cover a whole new set of issues. This year there is a heavy focus on reading comprehension.
“Everyone is already talking about 3rd grade reading as being such an instrumental time and milestone in a kids development,” he explained. “Our coverage will really coincide with that; how are they developing over this school year and next school year so that they will be capable readers.”
As the students grow up, however, there is one thing Manning hopes remains constant.
“The main goal is that we can continue to have really strong relationships with the families and the kids,” he said. “There will be tough times for many of these families between now and 2025; our hope is that we can continue to tell those tough stories.”