We believe that we can learn from those who are around us. Because of this, we want you to hear from men and women that we think have something to teach us. This series of interviews starts with Laura Insensee, an Education reporter in Texas. Whether you are a parent or a tax payer, what she says about schools is important.
LW: What is a typical day like for you?
LI: My day always starts with breakfast. I’ve never understood why some people don’t like breakfast. It gives me energy and it’s my favorite meal. My work day usually starts around 9 or 9:30 a.m. I’m an education reporter for a public radio station. So a typical day involves a lot of research, talking on the phone, maybe a visit to a school and, more often than not, writing and mixing my piece for broadcast. After work, I often head to dance class, workout or meet up with friends.
LW: You are an education reporter and see many schools. Is there an interesting trend in education that we should know about?
LI: There are many interesting trends in education right now. Technology is changing how we live our lives, and that includes how children learn and teachers instruct. Both public and private schools are going digital in the classroom. That could mean a laptop or a tablet for every student, which is called “one-to-one” in the education world. Or it could mean a BYOD policy – Bring Your Own Device – which allows students to bring his or her own laptop, tablet or even smart phone to use in class. Another trend is a move to new curriculum standards, called Common Core. Almost all the states, plus Washington, D.C. and four territories, have adopted Common Core standards. They are supposed to be more rigorous than previous standards. Not all states are on board; Texas and Virginia are two big exceptions. Some critics see it as the federal government intervening in local education, and a backlash has emerged against it. The standards are still very much in progress. The textbooks and the assessments haven’t been fully developed. Some states, like Florida, have said they are behind their deadlines to implement Common Core. If it does move forward, it could mean big changes in the way children learn, for example elementary students would read more nonfiction texts.
LW: Because of the nature of your job, you see what’s wrong with schools on a regular basis. What are some of the things that parents should look out for when considering their children’s schools?
LI: Parents have to be smart consumers when it comes to education, just like any other aspect of their children’s lives. The great thing about education is there is a lot of data and public information out there that parents can look up. So, I’d suggest researching the district and individual campus’s academic profile with the state education agency and look at the past several years. How did the school do on its state accountability system? How did the school do on federal standards, known as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP? If it’s a high school, check out the graduation rate, dropout rate and also compare the size of the freshman class with the size of its graduating senior class, to see how many students actually stay through the four years. None of this research can replace a school visit. Visit the school, any particular magnet programs on campus, and talk with the principal. If you feel comfortable with the principal and like his or her style and academic philosophy, that means a lot. Many people in education tell me the principal and his or her style can often determine the overall environment at a campus. Another good thing to check out if the school has any recent surveys by students. They’re the ones going to school day in and day out.
LW: How much does parent involvement affect the success of a school and its students?
LI: I’m not sure on what academic research says on this, but from my experience, parental involvement can bring success to a school, even for high schools when we think older students are more independent. For example, I’ve seen parents lobby successfully to keep a teacher for computer science in tight budget times.
LW: In your experience, what does it take to change a school? What and how much can parents do when things aren’t going well?
LI: It can take a lot to change a failing school. In 2009, the Obama Administration invested $3 billion in school improvement grants for struggling schools to use over three years. Besides money, there are other resources for parents. To start, there’s the parent teacher organization. For public schools, there’s your locally elected school board. Find out who represents your school on the board and contact them if you have a problem. The board member often has a liaison who deals with constituent services. For charter schools, there is a governing board that you can contact if you have an issue. You can also connect with community groups in the school area, like a business group or civic association. They often care about local education and may already provide some support to the campus. Bottom line is parents can do a lot. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen parents lobby to keep elective teacher from budget cuts. I’ve also seen parents negotiate with assistant superintendents over plans to expand a magnet program and add grades at their highly ranked campus. I’ve seen parents rally against drugs near campus. I think they were all successful in some way.
LW: What do you think “having it all” means?
LI: I think the answer to this question is very personal. First, though, I have to quibble with the wording of the phrase. I find the semantics of the verb “to have” troubling. It means to possess. More often than not, that implies possessing objects. I think of my life in terms of experiences and relationships, not in terms of collecting objects or statuses. I think we all want to love and be loved. We all want to be valued and appreciated. We want to feel like we’ve contributed to something bigger than ourselves. For me, it’s not about “having it all.” It’s about being the best version of myself. That means trying my best at work to do journalism that helps improve someone’s life. It also means a life outside of work – spending time with my family and friends, training for my next half marathon, learning a new dance step, cooking for pure pleasure. All these experiences shape different parts of myself. Together, they make a whole.
Laura Isensee covers education for Houston’s NPR affiliate. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald. Her work has also appeared The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín, one of Argentina’s major newspapers. She has won awards for her political reporting and radio journalism. A native of Houston, Laura studied Spanish and liberal arts at the University of Texas at Austin and earned her masters from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Outside of work, Laura loves to cook, dance and train for half-marathons.
You can follow Laura on twitter @laurainsensee