Herald publishes five-part education series!

Even in its heydays, the Boston Herald was hard-pressed to match the Boston Globe in substantive beat reporting, especially on issues such as education, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

While the Globe had multiple reporters covering the different stages of education – a reporter for Boston schools, another for statewide elementary and secondary education, a higher ed reporter and still another for state education policy coverage – the joke in the Herald newsroom was the education beat covered “K through death.”

A smaller staff, a need to feed the daily beast, and just the vagaries of the tabloid format, which restricts space and requires more picture displays and less long-form pieces, all worked to make sweeping, big-idea stories the exception rather than the rule. And with newsroom reductions affecting everyone, there is no longer a reporter assigned exclusively to education coverage at the Herald, while the Globe, like other outlets, has thinned its education beat reporting ranks as well.

Which made it all the more surprising on Monday when the Herald unveiled the first of a five-part series on Boston public schools, with the focus on four schools that have made strides in improving and changing the educational approach. Tomorrow, the series concludes with a promised lengthy interview with Superintendent Carol Johnson.

The series, titled “Head of the Class” and written and reported by columnist Jessica Heslam, in many ways is pure Herald, focusing on aspects of the approach taken by the four schools that are throwbacks to basics that are near and dear to Herald readers’ hearts: School uniforms, longer school days, teaching courtesies, and discipline.

Don’t expect mutli-page takeouts or nuances about MCAS scores and incremental improvements. The stories still carry the Herald approach – short, to the point, and with lots of bullet points. Each story has a main piece giving the overview of the school, a short side-bar about someone who is making a difference at the school, and an accompanying “facts” box about the school and its revamped approach.

But in other ways, the series is contrary to the direction the Herald has been going and, to the paper’s credit, required dedicating a reporter, photographer, and design person, all valuable resources in this day and age of tightening budgets.

The series has looked at TechBoston Academy; UP Academy, formerly known as Gavin Middle School; Orchard Gardens School; and the Joseph Lee Elementary School. All four schools have been targeted by the federal government as part of its “turnaround” program.

The series doesn’t quite carry the heft of the recent “Building Better Schools” special report in the Standard-Times that sent a reporter around the country looking at urban districts to find approaches that could help turn around New Bedford schools. But don’t blame that on Heslam, who has covered local government, general news, and education throughout her tenure at the Herald and the Patriot Ledger. The series shows she spent considerable time in the classrooms and talking to teachers, parents, and administrators.

It also shows the Herald still takes its responsibility seriously to report on issues that affect its readership. The series won’t likely win awards or become a go-to repository to gauge progress in the Boston schools, but it should win some appreciation from readers that the tabloid has not abandoned its core constituency. What it can also do is trigger interest and discussion among the Herald’s bread and butter, Boston’s blue-collar readers who make up the majority of public school parents in the city. As they say, you learn something new every day.

                                                                                                                                         –JACK SULLIVAN


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