Guinda Reeves is one reporter who makes no pretense of journalistic neutrality when it comes to public education. She sees herself as a champion of the public schools and believes that the schools need to be celebrated -- especially in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of the birthplaces of blues music, where hard knocks and struggle grow in the soil.
Census figures show that, compared to Americans overall, people in this former cotton boomtown in the heart of the Mississippi Delta are less likely to hold a high school or college diploma, more likely to be disabled, and more likely to live in poverty. Unemployment in Coahoma County, which includes Clarksdale, runs at 10.7 percent, and the county schools lost accreditation from the state two years ago by failing to meet more than half of the accreditation standards.
Yet Reeves, who covers the Coahoma County School District for the Clarksdale Press Register, sees the promise here. The twenty-nine-year veteran of newspaper and radio reporting arrived in Clarksdale last summer expecting to find raw divisions between blacks, who account for about 70 percent of the population, and whites. Instead, she says, people of both races in this God-loving community work side by side to try to lift up Coahoma County and its schools.
Though Reeves is new to Clarksdale and previously worked in Arizona, Kansas, and Arkansas, the Missouri native fits in here. She's warm and straight talking and, without being stuffy, believes schools need to teach children politeness and consideration until strained families can start doing it better.
"Whatever happened to manners?" she wonders.
In the business of reporting school news to Coahoma County, population 30,000, Reeves keeps it simple. She covers school board meetings and developments in school funding, test scores, and accreditation but gets into few of the details of teaching and learning in the classroom because she has so little time; she and two other reporters fill five editions a week, often working twelve- or even sixteen-hour days, and she's responsible for the city government and police beats in addition to reporting on county schools.
Given the time constraints, Reeves focuses on what she sees as the most important thing: keeping the community apprised of school officials' decisions. An informed community is an empowered community, she reasons, and hopefully one that will actively involve itself in public education.
"These kids are the community's future, and they don't just need the support of the parents, they need the support of everybody," says Reeves, who has no children but became an aunt at age seven and helped raise her nieces and nephews. "It's just obscene to me that a community will spend thousands and millions building sports arenas, but they'll quibble over fixing something in a school building. I'm sorry, folks, but here's where the most important things in our lives are -- those other things are just games."
Reeves focuses on the basics also because that's what matters most in Coahoma County. Schools here need classroom supplies and building repairs, she says. Students know they can drop out and "go help Mom and Dad in the fields," says Reeves -- and 13 percent do leave school without graduating. Far from quibbling over whether local teachers are applying the most newfangled research on differentiated instruction, parents worry about their children having adequate textbooks.
Test scores, too, matter a lot at the Press Register. Reeves wrote a long article in September, as soon as the state released local scores, detailing peaks and valleys in student performance. She finds it unfair how the federal No Child Left Behind Act compares low-income school districts, like the one she covers, with those with fatter pockets, and she worries that the pressure will prompt educators to teach only to the tests.
Still, she believes the scores tell the community how well it's doing relative to Mississippi and the United States as a whole, and how bright its future looks. Ultimately, that's what education is for, Reeves asserts -- to enable kids to become adults who make better decisions as voters, parents, and professionals. "It affects the entire fabric of society," she says.
At the moment, Coahoma County's future, as gauged by test scores, looks brighter in some areas than others. More than 80 percent of local high school students last spring passed the state's writing and U.S. history tests, and more than 90 percent passed algebra and biology. Sixth graders also scored highly in math, but students at both levels seriously faltered on reading and language.
To improve in these subjects, Reeves wrote, the superintendent planned to implement Scholastic's Read 180 program and bolster professional development for first-year and alternate-route teachers. The district has done enough self-improvement in the past two years that state officials expect to recommend reinstating its accreditation within the month.
Reeves steers clear of personality conflicts in her stories, professing that she serves her readers better by focusing on the meat of the news. "I've learned through the years that when there is conflict, if you can listen and ask the right questions, if you can get through the buzzwords and get to what people are really trying to say, most people that disagree aren't that far apart," she says. "Sometimes our job is to help clarify things so that they can begin talking in a way that will help solve problems rather than make them worse."
If she had more time, she says, "Oh, man, I would love to visit each school once a week, just drop by, say, 'What's going on here today?' walk through the halls, see what the kids are doing, take a camera. I just think that would be really encouraging for the kids and the teachers."
All community papers struggle under the same constraints, Reeves says. "Most of us that cover education, my God, we know there's so much more we'd like to be writing about, but we have just so many hours in the day; we have just so many resources to work with." She longs to better inform readers about the local economy and get more rewards for teachers by showing the community the work they do. But most days, news breaks and she pushes those larger goals farther down her to-do list.
"You swallow and do the best you can," she says, "and you hope it's enough."