Two of the most common frustrations I hear from new education reporters is that they have trouble coming up with story ideas, and they have trouble building up real-people sources. “Do you get into schools?” I ask, and they say they do—for formal events. Which doesn’t get you much. Here’s my tried-and-true strategy for school visits that result in story ideas, goodwill and a big fat Rolodex. (Or Google contact list—you know what I mean.)
Look at the list of schools you cover. Pick one. Maybe you haven’t yet been to a high-poverty school on the west side of the county. Maybe you haven’t been to a middle school in a while. Maybe you have heard the principal is interesting. Call him or her up. Say that you are trying to get to know the schools better and see what they have to offer. Ask to visit for two hours one morning. Say you’d like to chat briefly with him or her, tour the building, sit in a class and meet some students—a meeting with the newspaper staff, free rein in the lunchroom, whatever they will allow. Tell the principal this isn’t for a story.
During the visit, ask the principal what he or she is proud of and what challenges the school faces. (Framing this as “challenges” is the best possible way to get people to open up about things beyond the obviously glowing.) Ask the teachers you meet the same thing. Get the e-mail addresses, screen names and cell numbers of every person you come across.
I always left these visits with the inklings of story ideas. Why are there no Asian teachers in a school that is one-fifth Asian? Why is the math teacher teaching biology? This wasn’t “Dateline NBC”; I was not there to catch anyone out, and I held to my promise that I wasn’t there to write a story. But I came back to the ideas.
The best part was that the first contact I made with these principals was positive. Later on, I could call them for a quote or context or feedback in a way that was never so easy when we were just names to each other. I had lists of students I could IM with regularly; even if I didn’t keep track of them by name, I grouped them by school to get their takes on whatever I was pursuing.
I made visits like these every week or two. It is never easy to carve out time, of course, but schools generally start earlier than newsrooms and I found that I could make a worthwhile school visit and still be at my desk by 11 for a full workday. Once your editors see the dividends these visits yield, I can’t imagine them complaining.