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Tampa Bay Times Series on Pinellas District's Failures Wins Top Investigative Prize

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The Tampa Bay Times newspaper has won the highest honor from Investigative Reporters & Editors for its 2015 series about the failures of the Pinellas County, Fla., school system's efforts to educate African-American children.

"Failure Factories," by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner, Michael LaForgia, and Nathaniel Lash of the Florida paper (formerly the St. Petersburg Times), examined the Pinellas district after it abandoned racial desegregation efforts in 2007.

"In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county's black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida," the series began last August. "First they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelmingly poor and black."

"Then they broke promises of more money and resources," it continued. "Then—as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse—the board stood by and did nothing."

On April 7, Investigative Reporters & Editors awarded the series its regular award for print/online stories by medium-sized news organizations. And the series was one of three awarded the IRE Medal, the organization's top prize.

"With its deep reporting, clear writing and detailed data analysis, the Tampa Bay Times shamed and embarrassed Pinellas County school leaders for completely failing black children in the district," IRE said in announcing the awards. "Reforms are now underway because of the impressive commitment by the newspaper to right an alarming wrong."

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights announced on April 4 that it had opened an investigation into whether the 104,000-student Pinellas County district was systematically discriminating against black schoolchildren.

On April 5, the Times reported on a "proposal aimed at repairing the damage done to schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods after years of neglect."

"District leaders released a broad set of recommendations late Tuesday that include hiring a minority achievement officer, creating special centers for students suspended out of school, and establishing a 'transformation zone' with intense support for Pinellas' failing elementary schools," the story said.

The Times "Failure Factories" series has received several journalism prizes, including IRE's separate Philip Meyer Award in January for journalism using social research methods. It won the education reporting prize of the George Polk Awards, and is a finalist for investigative reporting in its size category for the Education Writers Association awards.

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