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"Leaving to Learn," a seven-day series in the Rocky Mountain News, hasn't gotten the attention it deserves, for obvious reasons; other news, including the slayings at Virginia Tech, regularly stole the spotlight over the course of its run. However, "Learn" provided an especially interesting look at some of the the reasons why approximately a quarter of eligible Denver children don't attend a public school within the city's boundaries. If today's pieces, which focus on the efforts of Denver Public Schools head Michael Bennet (pictured), weren't quite as dramatic as those that preceded them, they still struck a better balance than did the Rocky's last major education opus, which raised major journalistic questions about how far a news organization should go to get access to data.
For "Early Exit: Denver's Graduation Gap," the previous package (and the subject of this June 2005 Message column), the Rocky worked closely with DPS for months before the fruit of this labor was published. As a result, the district was able to distribute a talking-points memo to principals who were to be interviewed, telling them how they should respond to assorted questions they were likely to be asked. In addition, the paper made room for two separate essays by then-DPS superintendent Jerry Wartgow, including one, about student successes, that represented the purest form of cheerleading. Granted, much of the data the Rocky published was mighty grim, but the implications of the tabloid's relationship with DPS lessened its impact.
Although DPS also provided information utilized in "Leaving to Learn," the Rocky didn't bend over for it. Indeed, reporters mainly worked with researchers at the Piton Foundation, a nonprofit that was involved in similar studies. This relationship provided distance from DPS, and for that reason, the statistics as they pertain to charter schools and many other educational issues bear no hint of hinkiness. That the assorted components of "Learn" were just as compelling yet less scattershot than the presentation of "Early Exit" was a notable bonus.
"Leaving to Learn" is an example of a metro newspaper operating at a high journalistic level in every sense. Looks like the Rocky learned its lesson. -- Michael Roberts