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Education Writers' Conference Weighs School Violence, Teacher Unrest

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Los Angeles

Education journalists from across the nation gathered here this week with a focus on diversity in their profession, recent activism by teachers, and the scourge of school violence, among other topics.

The Education Writers Association's top award for education reporting went to John Woodrow Cox of The Washington Post for a compelling three-part series on children and gun violence, which was published last June.

"Riveting, heartbreaking, infuriating, and tender," one contest judge said of Cox's entry, which examined the effects of gun violence on student survivors in Townville, S.C.; Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C.

The Post's series won an award for best single-topic news or feature story by a large staff general news outlet, as well as the Fred M. Hechinger grand prize for distinguished education reporting, which is named for a late education correspondent of The New York Times.

Participants at the EWA national seminar at the University of Southern California also heard from a panel of four students affected by school violence: Emma González and David Hogg from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 14 students and three staff members and injured 14 others; Alex King, a student activist fighting gun violence affecting Chicago teenagers; and Jackson Mittleman, now a high school student in Newtown, Conn., who was in middle school when a gunman attacked Sandy Hook Elementary School in that community in 2012.

The student panel was sponsored by Education Week and moderated by staff writer Evie Blad, who reminded Mittleman that at the March for Our Lives in Washington on March 24, he had vowed to be with the student victims and activists of Stoneman Douglas High "after the media trucks leave."

What is it like after the media trucks leave, Blad asked.

"It hurts people so much to talk about it that they don't want to talk about it," Mittleman said. "We don't want to be defined by this tragedy. ... I don't want to have a tattoo of tragedy and sadness."

Hogg, González, and King have remained outspoken in the battle for gun control measures, with Hogg noting that in a search for accurate data, he even called up Cox at The Washington Post to learn more about the database on gun violence the reporter had developed.

Hogg also scoffed at criticism the student activists have received from pro-gun rights advocates that they spend too much time on their phones.

"That may be true, but we're communicating," Hogg said. [Edweek's Madeline Will has a more detailed account of the panel.]

Teacher activism was discussed in several sessions, with Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association observing that recent walkouts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona amounted to the "Education Spring" and made education reporters the "cool kids" among journalists.

EWA's awards continued to reflect the impact of nontraditional news outlets such as web-based publications and nonprofit organizations.

Matt Barnum, Dylan Peers McCoy, and Laura Kebede of Chalkbeat won an award for "The Portfolio Model," their series about the rising influence and power of a network of organizations pushing school districts to outsource school management—especially of low-performing schools—to charter groups. Erin Einhorn of Chalkbeat Detroit won the small-staff award for beat reporting for her coverage of the Detroit school system.

David Kidwell of the Better Government Association, a venerable public interest organization in Chicago, won the small-staff investigative reporting prize for an examination of increased graduation rates at the City College of Chicago.

Kidwell said he was struck as he delved into education reporting by how much teachers and journalists have in common. "We love what we do, and we pretty much do it for nothing," he said.

Graduation rates were also a focus of "The Failure Track," a joint effort between ProPublica, a nonprofit public interest journalism organization, and the Teacher Project. 

"This project was a thorough examination of how some schools were funneling marginal students into alternative charter schools to boost their graduation numbers," a judge said. "The reporting combined deep data with student stories, and the voices of parents, teachers, advocates and administrators."

In the opinion category, Alexander Russo won for his essays about media coverage of education in The Grade, a site affiliated with Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

The full list of category finalists is here, the category winners are here, and the announcement of EWA's top awards is here.

For the second year in a row, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declined EWA's invitation to address education reporters at the conference. DeVos cited scheduling conflicts, an EWA official said. Other U.S. education secretaries have addressed the conference, though not every year.

(DeVos was visiting private schools in New York City this week, among other events on her schedule.)

Greg Toppo, the president of EWA's board and an editor at the web publication Insider Higher Ed, said "an EWA conference in Los Angeles would not be complete without a nod to the city's iconic film industry."

While DeVos was a no-show, "we did get Luke Skywalker," Toppo said.

The actor Mark Hamill of "Star Wars" fame and his wife, Marilou York, attended a conference luncheon on May 17, where the couple discussed their support for the Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a USC-based college prep program for inner city students and their parents.

"This is designed to lower the barriers to educational access," York said of the program.

"It's really amazing to see" the participants "be able to grab the opportunity and make their own future," Hamill said.

Hamill lent some star power to the luncheon by announcing the top EWA awards, after the main category winners had been announced the night before. 

"The last awards I presented was at the Oscars, and this is a lot less pressure," the actor said.  

When the panel of high school student activists ended on Thursday morning, several education reporters approached the students to ask further questions. When the awards luncheon was over, many of the hard-bitten, streetwise journalists here crowded around Hamill to snap selfies and shake his hand.

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