BY DEVIN RODRIGUEZ and DEVON BONNELL, USFSP Student Reporters
ST. PETERSBURG – The numbers were damning.
At five predominantly black elementary schools in St. Petersburg, standardized test scores were dismal and student suspensions were soaring.
But when the Tampa Bay Times created a team to investigate the story behind the numbers, the timing could not have been worse for schools reporter Cara Fitzpatrick.
She was nine months pregnant.
Photographs courtesy of Tampa Bay Times
So it happened that on the day she gave birth, the man she fondly calls “my manic husband” – investigative reporter Michael LaForgia – was at her bedside, asking her, between contractions, to recount the history of segregation in Pinellas County schools.
After three hours, Fitzpatrick gave birth to a baby boy.
The newspaper’s investigation took a bit longer. But after 18 months, the Times began a five-part series on the five schools, which it called “Failure Factories.”
After analyzing mountains of data and conducting hundreds of interviews, the newspaper concluded that the schools, all serving predominantly black neighborhoods, performed satisfactorily until the Pinellas County School Board ended its decades-old desegregation policy in 2007.
The board had promised to provide more money and staff to the schools, which would now serve a poorer and higher minority population. But it failed to follow through.
As a result, the newspaper found the schools were now plagued by plummeting test scores, chronic violence and crippling staff turnover.
Since the stories were published last year, the U.S. Department of Education has begun an investigation. The school district has hired a turnaround specialist and announced changes in policy, including a longer school day and increased teacher pay at the failing schools. Principals at four of the five schools are being replaced.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick, LaForgia and fellow reporter Lisa Gartner won journalism’s highest award – the Pulitzer Prize – for their work.
The team, which also included photojournalist Dirk Shadd, data reporter Nathaniel Lash, computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg, and investigations editor Chris Davis, was recognized for what the Pulitzer board calls “a distinguished example of reporting on significant issues of local concern, demonstrating originality and community expertise.”
The three reporters and Shadd also won first place reporting and photography awards from the Florida Society of News Editors.
The “Failure Factories” project started with Fitzpatrick and Gartner, the paper’s education beat reporters.
School system data showed that disciplinary action seemed to fall hardest on black elementary students, Fitzpatrick said, and black students here were performing far worse on state tests that black students in other Florida counties.
Since she had covered school districts elsewhere in Florida where black youngsters did better, she said, she found it strange that local school officials weren’t talking about it.
That prompted a long memo to editors, who eventually decided to create the team to investigate.
Fitzpatrick had intended to take four months’ parental leave. She took two instead.
There were mounds of public records to request and analyze: Standardized test scores from Pinellas and other large school districts in Florida. Statistics showing how often students were disciplined and suspended, compared to other schools in the county. Police reports showing how often officers were summoned to the schools to deal with unruly students. School employee databases and other records showing how many teachers had transferred out of the troubled schools.
In requesting public records from the sometimes balky Pinellas school district, Fitzpatrick said, the newspaper sought to find patterns over several years.
“We needed five to 10 years’ worth of information,” she said. “If you have one year, then you don’t have enough … You can have an off year, but not an off 10 years.”
The Times team reached out to hundreds of people, especially teachers and parents with children in the five schools.
Teachers and administrators who were still employed by the school district were reluctant to talk, Fitzpatrick said, but retired teachers were generally forthcoming about the daunting challenges they had faced.
“These elementary schools had more violent (disciplinary) referrals than 17 of the high schools in the area,” she said. “Teachers had fled from the schools because they were working in hazardous environments.”
The newspaper, she said, “had to be fair with teachers … while asking, ‘Are students truly getting their education?’”
Just as important to the story were interviews with students and their parents, who were, in effect, victims of the school district’s indifference toward the five failing schools. And that’s where Shadd, the Times’ photojournalist, played an important role.
“One of my major take-aways from ‘Failure Factories’ is how important it is to go door to door and speak with people,” said Fitzpatrick. “We interviewed hundreds of people for the story.”
The three reporters are white. Shadd is black. At the paper, he is admired for his affability and people skills, which Fitzpatrick said helped the Times win the confidence of some of the black parents.
“Dirk spent hours with families, showing up at homes before children went to school, riding city buses with some, and hanging out after school,” said Fitzpatrick.
On important stories like this one, said Fitzpatrick, “there is no one who is not worth listening to. You should speak to as many people as you possibly can, especially those outside of the power structure.”
Journalists know that, during a lengthy project, their personal lives will be disrupted.
This project was especially challenging for Fitzpatrick and LaForgia, who had a toddler and newborn at home.
“We spent so much time at the office on weekends that my daughter started to think it was a fun place to go,” said Fitzpatrick. “She asked me on Christmas Day if we were going to the office to see Mr. Chris (Davis, the project’s editor).”
The project may be over now, she said, but her work as a Pinellas schools reporter is ongoing.
“I think that it’s essential for the community to know we didn’t just come in for a great big story and then leave,” she said. “They still see me at meetings and, hopefully, I will write about the (five) schools being better places for kids someday.”
Devin Rodriguez and Devon Bonnell are student journalists at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.