Neufeld’s School Turnaround Saga Turned Into Book

Recent NJTV interview above.

Sara Neufeld has been in and (briefly) out of education journalism for a while now, but all of sudden this fall it seems like she’s everywhere. The book version of her Newark school reporting came out online – The Hechinger Report’s first such effort. A series on a new high school in Brooklyn was published on NPR’s website. She was even on New Jersey public television being interviewed about her work.

Neufeld isn’t new to education journalism, having started out 15 years ago as an intern at the San Jose Mercury News the summer that the superintendent of East Palo Alto schools was indicted on nearly two dozen felony charges. The internship turned into a job, and then after three years Neufeld moved East to join the Baltimore Sun.

She covered County and City schools over a six-year period (2003-2009), leaving only after a “huge round” of layoffs made her feel like she couldn’t do the kind of high-quality work she wanted to do. [See her departure blog post here: With a heavy heart, volunteering to go.]

She moved to New York City and worked for New Visions (a large education nonprofit) for nearly a year. She freelanced as a journalist and began teaching yoga on the side. She had been teaching yoga on the side since 2007 and for a while thought she’d make that her main focus. [According to her Twitter bio, she’s a “Journalist, education wonk, yogini, mom.”]

Then in 2012 the Hechinger Report’s Liz Willen about a reporting project focused on Newark.

The series focuses on the fate of one struggling K-8 school, Quitman Street Elementary, and the educators and community members who are trying to make things better. Initially, it was just going to be one story. By then end of the three-year project, it was almost a dozen. Along the way, Neufeld followed two students, one struggling and the other who was doing well, despite incredible obstacles.

As you’ll see in the interview below, Neufeld’s reporting experience was pretty intense, and her work overlapped in interesting ways with that of others such as Dale Russakoff and documentary filmmakers.

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See the 137-page book, A Promise To Renew, here.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Did you know how big a project it was going to be when you started out?

SN: I didn’t know at various points how long it would continue. Initially I was hired story to story, then there was funding for a series of stories. At the end of the second year, we thought it was over. Then there was another grant, and we did four more stories. It was an interesting process, not knowing where the series was going.

How did you get (and keep) access to the school?

SN: When you publish as you go along, there’s always the risk of losing access – which we nearly did at one point. But the principal provided access far beyond what I had hoped for. He was willing to let me keep coming back because he felt I was telling the story honestly, even if it wasn’t always easy to see in print, and he thought the outside scrutiny pushed him and his staff to be more mindful.

Early on, WNYC and NJ Spotlight were all meant to be partner in the reporting process. How did the partnership work out?

SN: Originally it was going to be a rotating cast. But [because of Hurricane Sandy and other reasons], the daily demands of publication and a radio show made it impossible for those reporters to spend a lot of time on the project consistently.

What did WNYC and NJ Spotlight end up doing?

SN: WNYC did radio versions of the first two stories as well as a follow-up in the third year. NJ Spotlight provided a photographer, Amanda Brown, for the entire project and ran all the installments as they were published, in addition to the e-book. NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney wrote a story in the first year about the closure of a school close to Quitman, which he turned into a foreword for the e-book.

How does your book mirror or differ from Dale Russakoff’s The Prize?

SN: Her book, which I think is brilliant and such an important contribution to the landscape of education journalism, [is] educating the public about how good intentions can go awry, and how complicated it is to fix these dysfunctional systems. She took a broad view of the district. My mission was always just to tell the story of this one school. I was trying to stay out of the politics. I just wanted to tell people what it was like to walk in the shoes of this principal and the students and staff there.

How did Hechinger pick the project and the school?

SN: When I came on board, Liz had entered into an agreement to collaborate with WNYC and NJ Spotlight to follow one of eight renew schools for a year. Someone had gotten clearance from [former Newark superintendent] Cami Anderson to do that. The district took one or two schools off the list of eight schools because they were so dysfunctional. Dale was already following another renew school that we automatically took off the table. Then John Mooney from NJ Spotlight, Nancy Solomon from WNYC and I went to meet the principals one day – a casting call, I thought of it. We were stood up at a couple of schools but met Erskine Glover, and it was so apparent immediately he was the right person.

What did you find at the school?

SN: When first went, I thought this is going to be a horrible school (based on test scores). That wasn’t the case at all. I saw people working incredibly hard with very little to show for it. It was much more captivating than a “gotcha” kind of situation – and it was why I couldn’t stop myself from returning. I wanted to see if everything they’re doing was ever going to pay off. And that is of course not a quick process.

Was there any real interference from the central office at the school or in your reporting?

SN: They for the most part were really good – perhaps that’s an advantage of writing for a smaller publication. As for the school, the assistant superintendent Peter Turnamian provided quite a bit of support. Certainly the principal found it constructive having him help them troubleshoot. 

Did you see a lot of evidence of the outside funding and community group involvement at Quitman?

SN: Not that much. The only real evidence of the Facebook money at the school level was the teacher raise through the contract and the accountability system that went along with that.

What was the union’s role at the school?

SN: Within the school the union rep worked in collaboration with the principal. The installment that was the most controversial and almost got me kicked out (“Schooled By Substitutes) was less a union issue than an example of the school being caught between policies that resulted in teachers leaving.

Did you find, as Sarah Carr wrote in the Washington Post, that Russakoff’s reporting and writing about school-level people and Newark community members wasn’t as nuanced as it could have been?

SN: I haven’t seen that piece and I respect Sarah’s judgment very much, but I didn’t find that in my own reading of it. When I read the book, I couldn’t put it down. I spent every minute I had childcare over four days reading the book. I was actually impressed that Dale had clearly gone to so many school events and spent so much time with her subjects. I understood what it took to invest time in the lives of individual students and teachers, and found considerable evidence that she had done so.

What did you learn about education journalism from your own reporting process?

SN: One of my biggest lessons is that you can use phone and email to set up interviews, gather data and fact-check, but you really can’t get the story if you’re not there. Every installment ended up being several days at the school, and following the kids required being a part of their lives, going to school events and to after-school visits. [Neufeld was based in Brooklyn during the reporting of most of the series, and covered the last year from Queens.]

And what was the main policy lesson or takeaway from the project?

SN: School reform takes a long time, and my last installment sums it up in last couple of paragraphs: It’s a long process to turn around a school when it’s done honestly. There’s such a tension against the lives of the individual children whose school [experiences] are going by so fast. They’re going through third grade now, not in five years when things get better. That’s the part that is so hard. That’s why so many education reformers have so little patience, and yet the years I spent at Quitman underscore the importance of giving time for changes to take effect. It’s hard finding the right people and even harder keeping them. There’s a silly debate about academic results or social services. Clearly you need both. The principal was really good at walking the tightrope between those two sides at Newark. All hands were necessary.

What was the most moving part of the process for you, personally?

SN: The part of my series that was the most meaningful to me was following the lives of these two kids, Nydresha and D’Andre, which I did during the year my son was born. I think there’s so little out there to let the general public out there what it’s like to walk in their shoes and grow up in the world that they do — understanding their dreams and aspirations, and how fragile life is for them. The process of following a school is such rewarding work, and it’s so physically and emotionally draining to do it, when you come to care about a place so much and you’re there as an observer.

Which story affected you the most?

SN: The story of D’Andre — a boy who was working so hard in part because he wanted his mother, who was largely absent from his life, to be proud of him, and about the unconditional devotion of his paternal grandmother in shaping his success. As I was giving birth to my own son, that story touched me unlike any other in my career. D’Andre’s mother came back into his life more actively during the year I was following him. He was so excited he was getting to see her every weekend. At back-to-school night, my heart was in my throat. I had heard so much about this kid’s mom, and here she was really coming. But she ended up following her boyfriend to Texas. That was the night after my story was published.

What’s your working relationship with Hechinger?

SN: I’ve continued as a freelancer by choice. As a contributing editor, I get a stipend for being part of the weekly staff meeting, editing and overseeing a grant to cover high school reform. Then I do my own reporting on a freelance basis. I’m incredibly grateful to [editor in chief] Liz [Willen] and [executive editor] Sarah [Garland] for providing me the opportunity to tell the kinds of stories I love again on my own terms. I thought I would only be able to keep doing the job I love in a toxic environment, and they’ve allowed me to have one without the other.

Neufeld’s recent TV interview isn’t her only public appearance. There was an appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show at the start of the Quitman series. At EWA’s national conference, Neufeld spoke to education journalists last spring in Chicago about how she reported the story. And it likely won’t be her last. She did a couple of on-camera interviews with a Ford Foundation-funded documentary team working on a film about Newark students , two of whom attended Quitman.

You can read Neufeld’s NPR series on Ascend High School here.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.