Race, Philly schools, and doing better

Kristen Graham's story about the Scotts, (from left) Rhett, Henry, and parents Jill and Mark who enrolled the children in E.M. Stanton Elementary in Center City sparked a discussion.

Reporter Kristen Graham and editor Yvette Ousley chatted live about this story and the reaction it received on Philly.com at noon on Wednesday, September 14. Scroll to the bottom to read the transcript of the chat.

I’ve been covering the Philadelphia School District for eight years now. I take my job and the schools and people I cover very seriously. My editors do, too.

I wrote a story this week about a middle-class Philadelphia family that chose four years ago to send their son to their neighborhood public school. Their boy had a spot waiting at a top charter, but they believed in public schools, so they enrolled him at E.M. Stanton. He did really well at the school, won acceptance to Masterman, and started in fifth grade there this month. Jill and Mark Scott are delighted with the education their son received, and their younger child starts at Stanton this week. They have worked to support the school and public education generally. Occasionally, people would ask me: how’s it going for that family that you wrote about? This story was meant to update people. The Scotts hope their experiences encourage others who have choices for their children to both to work for Philadelphia's struggling public schools — all of them — and to send their kids to them.

The story ran in Monday’s paper, and controversy quickly erupted. I heard from plenty of people who said they loved the story and appreciated the Scotts’ choice and their work, and many weighed in saying they found the story offensive, insensitive, glib, and tone deaf, that it was a story about race that never addressed race. (The Scotts are white and middle-class, the school mostly enrolls kids who are black and poor.) They said its premise was flawed and its execution was worse, that it ignored the reality of the vast majority of Philadelphia schoolkids, kids who attend struggling, underfunded schools with no other options. They said that describing the plight of a white kid who does have options without checking in with black families in that community who do not have them was not OK, among other things.

Here’s what I have to say: This story is not my entire body of work about the school district, or even my only story about Stanton, a small but mighty place whose strong community (of mostly people of color) fought off closure multiple times. It is one story of thousands I’ve written about the Philadelphia School District — context you don’t get from a tweet. After the feedback began rolling in, my editors and I talked small picture (examining this story) and big picture (how can we make sure that readers who view this one story know there's a larger body of work, deep context?)

I always say that my job as the Philly schools beat reporter is to cover as many people’s stories as I can, and this is the Scott’s story. Much more of my work, however, focuses on kids and the things that affect kids — mostly black, poor kids — who don’t have the same chances as Mark and Jill Scott’s sons, and the reasons why that is. (And believe me, I hear from plenty of readers who complain that I don’t write enough good-news stories.) 

But let me say this again: I take this work very seriously. This story mattered — to me, every one does. If I got something wrong, mea culpa. Could this story have been done better? Clearly, it could have. I will do better.

So let’s have a chat about race, Philadelphia schools, what I missed, and how to move forward. Wednesday, Philly.com, noon — apologies to those of you actually working in schools, who can’t join, but it’s the time that works for the largest group of readers. (If you can’t join and want to message me in advance with questions/thoughts/etc. to talk about, please do so.)  

My editor, Yvette Ousley (who as a Daily News reporter has covered the district herself) will join me on the chat, and I have reached out to folks on both sides of the issue to make sure we have a robust conversation.

I hope you’ll join us.