Schooling the readers

Despite the Big Big Troubles and the Big Big Worries over its future, the L.A. Times continues to publish wonderful enterprise pieces. A new addition I have fallen in love with features the work of a Times Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing, Bob Sipchen.

Sipchen these days writes a weekly column in the California section called “School Me,” dedicated exclusively to public education in Los Angeles. He is insightful, confrontational and fair-minded, determined to hold the educational bureaucracy accountable. It’s an example of what newspapers can do that is outside the scope of other media. There's a power of focusing a column this narrowly that gives it much more punch than the typical general-interest column.

Consider the top of this Oct. 2 column:

WHEN PRINCIPAL’S A GRIZZLY, CAMPUS LIFE CAN BE A BEAR

Nivi Lifshitz tells the story of her unfortunate introduction to the Los Angeles Unified School District like this: She answered her cellphone on her daughter's first day of school and was greeted by a scream -- "This is the worst-behaved child I've ever encountered in my life!"

Only later did the caller identify herself as Woodland Hills Elementary School Principal Anna Feig, Lifshitz says. The kindergartner, Feig told her, had crawled under a table and refused to come out. It seems her teacher, new to the job, had called the principal for help and Feig hauled the child into the office. The little girl spent three of the next four days outside the principal's office -- once, Lifshitz swears, for refusing to use the correct crayon color.

In later meetings, the mother says, Feig shouted that their child was not welcome at her school unless she started taking Ritalin -- an allegation the principal denies.

The parents kept their daughter home and looked for another school, even though the software developer and her musician husband, Joerg, had just doubled their rent by moving to the neighborhood -- largely because of the school's high test scores.

When I finally meet the girl, she's standing with her father outside another Woodland Hills school. She transferred there after what the parents portray as nasty battles with Feig and a week of nonresponse from the district. The girl, wearing a plaid shirt and white pants, chatters cheerfully as she tosses her vinyl Bratz backpack into her father's Prius, then pulls herself into her child seat.

This pleasant and precocious demeanor has been rattled, her parents say. She has drawn pictures of the principal as a monster, she has imaginary phone conversations in which she asks the principal not to yell, she has nightmares about Feig.

Given this portrait I drop in on the principal with caution, fearing she'll turn me into a toad with one blistering stare. I find, instead, a small, almost fragile-looking woman dressed in leopard print, with leopard-print jewelry. She's seated in a cluttered office, the focal point of which is a purple leopard-spot chair.

Before I've finished introducing myself Feig accuses me of misrepresenting the nature of my visit. Then, sensing my befuddlement, she softens.

"I know my reputation," she says. "I also know the good things I do."

After a short visit, Feig says she has a meeting, and I move outside the school's gates. Nestled in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and shaded with lots of mature trees, the beautifully maintained campus is the nicest I've visited in L.A. Unified. The parents -- many of whom say their children attend on permits available to students who live outside the school's immediate neighborhood -- rave about the academics, the attentiveness of the teachers and the high level of parental involvement. They brag that it's run like a private school -- that Feig, as several say using the same phrase, "runs a tight ship."

I've been chatting with child-herding, stroller-pushing moms (and a few dads) for perhaps an hour when Feig approaches. Apropos of nothing, she says: "I feel as if I've been kicked in the face."

Pressed, she says that as principal, she's always the scapegoat for parents who can't bear to hear honest assessments of their children.

Here’s a brief Q-and-A with Sipchen:

Whose idea was the column?
The column was my idea, years ago when I was an editor. I wanted to have someone else write it as part of a series to be called Laptop LA. The idea: Columns written by reporters on laptops as they explored various realms: Schools, Crime and Punishment, Health Care, etc. I almost got [former education reporter] Sandy Banks to do the one I thought was most important-education-when I was editing Current [The Times' Sunday opinion section], but she slipped away. So I'm giving it a shot myself.

What were your marching orders?
I talked to [Times California editor] Janet Clayton about this a while back when she was boss of the editorial pages. We were in total synch. We both agreed that the Times was among the institutions that shared blame for the sorry state of education in Los Angeles. When [former Times editor-in-chief] Dean [Baquet] invited me into the California section, Janet helped me to refine the mission.

What was your biggest concern going in?
The biggest is that people, despite what they say, may not really care enough about education to read a weekly column on the subject.

What were you most confident about?
There are great stories to tell and problems to expose.

What's been the payoff so far?
Lots of readers are telling me they've become followers of the column and plenty are calling and e-mailing with stories from the schools that they think deserve telling. This includes teachers, parents, taxpaying citizens and the occasional student. Also, I'm told that the column and the blog I do with a fantastic June USC grad, Janine Kahn, has become required reading in certain education and political decision-making circles.

What do you feel you still need to improve?
I'll always be able to learn more about education. Plus I'm still getting the hang of a weekly column — the tone, the ratio of reportage to reflection, the length, etc.

How have you balanced journalistic fairness and objectivity with the more subjective but enticing structure of a column?
I can't imagine a form of journalism that doesn't put fairness right alongside accuracy and pursuit of the truth as the highest, values. So I struggle mightily to be fair. But ultimately I can take sides. Being a columnist is a huge advantage when dealing with bureaucracies. If someone's obfuscating, dawdling or intentionally stonewalling about something, a reporter often is left twiddling her thumbs-the story's just not there. I can make a solid column out of that dawdling--and readers (as well as teachers, parents etc.) have responded with a level of gratitude that's very rewarding. Because in a sense, the obstructionism gets to the heart of what's wrong with education.

Anything else you think would help education writers and editors, who in my experience chafe under a belief that the audience considers education boring?
It's very easy to get sucked into the cult, to find yourself believing that all those acronyms and excessively polysyllabic theorems have a special meaning accessible only to a very special class of initiates. I sometimes have to slap myself in the face and chant loudly: "You're writing about people with human needs and goals, petty and profound." People are passionate about schools and we can't let the soul-deadened careerists who too-often control the agenda triumph in their self-interested desire to keep the public from paying attention to education. Clarity in this stuff is like caffeine-it wakes people up and may even addict them.

The full text of three Sipchen columns is available on my website, Newsthinking.com


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