When a reporter becomes part of the story
There are numerous charter schools located throughout the US which provide education for roughly 1 million students.
After years of experience in journalism, I’ve learned that a reporter’s job is to tell stories and not become part of them.
But for the last several years, unfortunately, the journalism landscape has been littered with examples of reporters who have violated that basic principle of the profession.
Today, I want to discuss the story of Andrew Vanacore, a reporter at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
On July 15, 2011, Vanacore wrote a story about the Abramson Charter School in New Orleans run by the Pelican Education Foundation.
The Pelican Education Foundation was established in December 2005, primarily focusing on math, science and technology. This new concept and vision for education was developed through a workgroup comprised of professors from Louisiana.
In 2007 Pelican took over Abramson Charter School, which at that time was in a very bad situation in terms of dropouts and graduate rates and School Performance Scores (SPS).
After Pelican took over Abramson, the school’s successes gradually increased.
Abramson Charter School is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans, 99 percent of its students are African-American and in four years it has been a success story. The SPS scores increased from 38 to 78. They have also seen a significant increase in graduation rates and a decrease in the dropout rates. They earned a recognized academic growth rating for the 2009/10 school year. In 2011, Abramson was listed as the second most successful school in the region. Abramson has become the beacon of light for the African-American community.
And suddenly everything changed dramatically after Vanacore’s story came out.
Vanacore ignored all these facts in his story, only focusing on some unsubstantiated allegations of a few former teachers who were expelled from Abramson for several reasons. Andrew’s other main focus were the “Turkish immigrants” who pioneered this education system in New Orleans. As you may easily understand, there is a light racist tone in the emphasis. For example, would you dare to refer to the ethnic background if some Jewish-Americans pioneered some of the charter schools in the region?
It is noteworthy to mention that just several hours before the article was published, or 6:30 p.m. on July 15, the Louisiana Department of Education sent an email to Abramson stating that the school’s operation had been suspended and an investigation was going to be carried out.
A sudden transfer to other neighbourhood schools
The next day, Saturday, The Times-Picayune ran another story by Vanacore about Abramson. Right after that, Mr. John White, Recovery School District superintendent, immediately called the school’s officials, requesting all the students’ and parents’ names and contact details and stating that Abramson students would be transferred to other neighborhood schools. School officials were shocked because they had not received any official documents from the RSD yet and, like the rest of the public, they learned all these allegations from that story. They responded by saying that unless an official document comes from the department, they would not take any action to hand out the contact details of students and parents.
Some necessary background: Mr. White was a controversial figure in New York for his involvement in the controversial debate to push a Hebrew Language Academy charter school within Marine Park Middle School, serving a poor black and Hispanic community. The parentsacrossamerica.org website contains very serious complaints about Mr. White, including the following:
“In the views of many public school parents, he has consistently ignored our concerns about overcrowding and inequitable distribution of resources and space. See this account; for example, of the proposal to place the Hebrew Language Academy charter school within Marine Park Middle School. During the proceedings, he called the 150 children who would attend the Hebrew charter school the ‘jewels’ of the DOE [Department of Education], which hugely offended the parents of the 1,100 children currently attending Marine Park MS, as well as the community’s elected officials, including Rep. Anthony Weiner.”
His refusal to consult with parents and the Community Education Council led to a lawsuit when he was in New York.
In New Orleans, Mr. White is showing a similar lack of concern for families. He issued a press release declaring that Abramson students would be transferred to four neighborhood schools. In addition, the Louisiana Department of Education issued a press release stating, without a good cause, that another charter school operating under Pelican Educational Foundation was also included in the investigation. Upon meeting with their lawyers, the administrators of Pelican Educational Foundation were informed that the Department of Education had no right to suddenly revoke or suspend a school’s operating license. In order to do that, an investigation must first be completed.
Last Wednesday, the state board of education voted to revoke its contract with Abramson. None of the BESE (Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) members knew any of the allegations about the school before. In my interview with BESE President Penny Dastugue right after the board meeting, she also admitted that she had learned about the allegations right after the story came out.
It’s obvious that the decision was made on the basis of political concerns rather than academic ones. A failing school, unable to be helped by the white elites, was greatly bolstered by a group of progressive Turkish educators. Are these white elites of New Orleans truly looking out for the well-being of these African-American kids, or do they have political and personal biases against these “outsiders.”
Presenting the case against the school, Dastugue also stated that “there was ample evidence that there were very severe safety, health and welfare issues.” But she couldn’t explain how this success story could have been achieved if there were safety issues in this school.
Xenophobia a motivator
I would say there was another motivation both behind the story and behind the BESE’s decision, and it was definitely xenophobia even though 80 percent of the teachers in the school were Americans. We know that despite the promise of the 14th Amendment, most African-Americans did not enjoy equal protection under the law until the second half of the 20th century in America. What is happening right now is that some extremist right-wing circles are directing this racist xenophobia at Muslim Americans who are devoting themselves to peace and education.
What happened in New Orleans is quite a solid example of that.
Now let’s see how one of the parents explains why Abramson encountered such resistance in New Orleans:
“My name is Angelique Kaufman. I am a parent of two teenage daughters from Abramson. I want to know how many people live where I live. Who lives in the East to be so concerned? Ms. Tyler, this is my first time laying eyes on you. I have been at every meeting. I have listened to Mr. White ramble on plan A, plan B, but no answers. I understand that you all have your laws and everything, but these are my children. When it comes down to my children, that is all I have. These people have given my children a very good education. My daughters have been in the New Orleans Public School System since they were born and never have I had anyone from the school system, from a school, period, come to my house and say: ‘Ms. Kaufman, do you have school uniforms for your daughters? Do you need help with the uniforms? Do you need free tutoring? Free summer school? These things are unheard of and I feel like all of this is because you are intimidated by the fact that these people have accomplished in four years what you have yet to accomplish.”
While the positive comments come from Abramson parents, opposing comments only came from outsiders with no Abramson experience. An Abramson incident involving a parent whose 5-year-old child was allegedly involved in two separate sexual incidents did not reveal the fact that she still had two other children in Abramson. The parent said she took her child out of Abramson because she was not satisfied with how the school handled the situation. This was not correct. The fact was that her child no longer wanted to attend the school. If Abramson was not a safe school, why did she let her two other kids continue studying at Abramson?
What the BESE did last week was definitely a political decision. There are a number of horrible schools in New Orleans dealing with rape, teen pregnancy, gang and drug issues, but none of these horrible schools have been closed down.
I now want to bring to your attention another issue: the possible motivation of The Times-Picayune reporter.
Ms. Carol Serio, who has been working at Abramson as a special education coordinator, claimed that there was a romantic relationship between Vanacore and her former employee Mary Elise DeCoursey, one of the most important sources in the story and the one who initially started all the allegations against Abramson. These are the official statements of Ms. Serio in a handwritten letter by her:
“This past weekend on social network ‘Facebook’ there has been slander against school, administration, staff by former employees (who were involved in recent Times Picayune article). These who are doing slander are: Tiffany Steward, Kisha Davis, Mary Elise DeCoursey, Charm Baker, Tamica Duroncelay, Amy Comarda. These named are gloating online with remarks that are untrue. There has also been mention of friendship and a romantic involvement of DeCoursey and Times Picayune writer of article. Carol A. Serio, M. Ed.”
I always believed that a reporter should remain a reporter and not be personally involved in the story.
This, after all, is the most basic principle of journalism.
*Aydoğan Vatandaş is an investigative reporter based in New York and holds an MA in media studies.