Blog: Our Reality Show

Education Stories
  • Brown v. Board: 65 Years Later

    Sixty-five years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools were “inherently unequal” in its treatment of African-American youth. According to researcher and scholar Richard Rothstein, the May 17, 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education served as a spark plug for the “freedom rides, sit-ins, voter registration efforts and other actions leading ultimately to civil rights legislation in the late 1950s and 1960s.”

    But did it help undo public school segregation? Rothstein and others argue that it didn’t.

    For an example of this, look no further than “Segregation’s Legacy,” a story I wrote earlier this year on Summerton, S.C., the small town where the first of five lawsuits that led to Brown was filed. I first went to Summerton in 2003 to look at the town and its schools as the 50th anniversary of Brown approached, then returned in January for another visit to see what — if anything — had changed.

    What I found and what I saw was published in the April edition of American School Board Journal, the magazine of the National School Boards Association. In a first for me, the story blends first-person narrative with updated reporting as well as photographs I took.

    Sadly, Summerton’s story seems to prove Rothstein’s point. Fifteen years later, another generation of students has been deprived of an opportunity to be part of well-funded, integrated schools where the focus is on learning for the future, not trying to hold on to the past.

    I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read “Segregation’s Legacy.” The link to the article is You also can download a copy of my 2004 article at

  • Jill Talks About Counselors, Columbine

    As the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting approaches, Jill was interviewed by Voice of America News on the importance of school counselors in school safety planning. The interview will be broadcast later this week as part of the network's coverage of the anniversary.

  • Photo on Magazine Cover

    Last month, I traveled to Winchester, Va., to take photos of fifth-grade students participating in AMPed UP! (Accelerated Math Progressions for Under Represented Potential) at Daniel Morgan Intermediate School. The photos were used on the cover of American School Board Journal as well as inside the magazine to illustrate a story recognizing the district for its efforts to improve the number of minority students in elementary school advanced math classes.

    You can read the story, titled "The Hard Work of Equity," here.

  • Segregation's Legacy

    More than 15 years ago, I embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of my pre-freelance career: Coordinating, researching and writing a variety of pieces for what became a 50-page special report on Brown v. Board of Education.

    As the son of a history teacher and a lifelong history buff, having the opportunity to take a deep dive into one of the most — if not the most — significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions was a dream come true. Over several months, I interviewed Walter Cronkite, former Education Secretary Richard Riley, civil rights scholar John Hope Franklin, and Richard Kluger, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Simple Justice, the definitive book on the Brown decision.

    But just as, if not even more significant, was the opportunity to visit and write about Summerton, S.C., the small town where the first of five lawsuits that led to Brown was filed. Working with my longtime friend Cecile Holmes, a University of South Carolina journalism professor, and her students, we looked at a variety of angles: the role of the church in desegregation battles as well as the lasting effects on the public schools and generations of children in Clarendon District No. 1.

    My story, “From First to Footnote,” led off the special report in the April 2004 American School Board Journal and helped bring attention to families who stood up to an entrenched system of segregation in this small Southern town. McGraw-Hill, the textbook company, later purchased 50,000 reprints of the issue and distributed them to history clients in schools it served.

    Earlier this year, I went back to Summerton to see what — if anything — had changed. Were the schools still segregated, thanks to a mostly silent but still entrenched resistance to integration? Are those connected to the original Briggs v. Elliot case — many of them in their late 70s and 80s — still carrying the torch?

    What I found and what I saw has just been published in this month’s American School Board Journal. Unlike any other magazine piece I’ve written, it blends first-person narrative with updated reporting as well as photographs I took.

    Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending. Fifteen years later, another generation of students has been deprived of an opportunity to be part of well-funded, integrated schools where the focus is on learning for the future, not trying to hold on to the past.

    I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read “Segregation’s Legacy.” You also can download a copy of my 2004 article here and read the Q&As here.

    All thoughts and comments are welcome.

  • Parkland: One Year Later

    One year ago today, 14 students and three teachers were killed at their high school in Parkland, Florida, in the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook. Three months and four days later, a 17-year-old gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 at Santa Fe High School only a few miles from my hometown in Texas.

    As a freelance writer and photographer, I’ve written two cover stories for magazines on the aftermath of these horrific events. Published just days before the Santa Fe shooting, “Generation Why” focused on the March for Our Lives movement started by Parkland survivors that spurred student walkouts and protests all over the U.S.

    The second story, “After It All Falls Apart,” looked at the slow recovery that is ongoing in Santa Fe, a small school district forced to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the school shooting within a nine-month period.

    The stories were written for the school board and administrator audience but provide interesting perspectives for noneducators as well. If you haven’t had a chance to read them, I’ve provided links to text versions in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing what you think.

  • The Oldest's Nuptials: T-Minus 2 Days

    It's Thursday afternoon. I'm sitting in a coffee shop working on a couple of freelance projects. Just like any other day, except... It's not just any other day.

    FIrst, it's two days before my first born gets married, so the coffee shop I'm sitting in is in Durham, not Alexandria. Second, it's also the first anniversary of the Parkland High School shooting, a sobering reminder in the midst of the celebration to be (see below).

    Finally, it's Valentine's Day. That is reason enough to make anyone pause, because it's a natural opportunity to reflect on your relationship (or lack thereof) with your significant other, even when candy/flowers/adult beverages are not involved.

    As I think about the life Jill and I have established (reflecting that is not exclusive to a Hallmark holiday), I'm eternally grateful to have her as my partner. She is living proof that soulmates do exist, that love can endure and ultimately triumph. I don't know what I'd do without her.

    Back to the wedding: Ben and I drove down yesterday, and he now is bachelor partying it with Nick and the rest of the groomsmen in Asheville. Since we're (voluntarily) down to one car, Kate and Jill are coming down today on a slow moving Amtrak. Emma arrives from Pittsburgh tomorrow, as do my mom and sister from Texas.

    As parents of the groom, our primary role in all this is the rehearsal dinner tomorrow night, which is when the true festivities begin. By Sunday, it will all be over.

    For Nick and Conner, that's when the rest of the story begins. #lovewins

  • Parkland: One Year Later

    One year ago today, 14 students and three teachers were killed at their high school in Parkland, Florida, in the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook. Three months and four days later, a 17-year-old gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 at Santa Fe High School only a few miles from my hometown in Texas.

    As a freelance writer and photographer, I’ve written two cover stories for magazines on the aftermath of these horrific events. Published just days before the Santa Fe shooting, “Generation Why” focused on the March for Our Lives movement started by Parkland survivors that spurred student walkouts and protests all over the U.S.

    The second story, “After It All Falls Apart,” looked at the slow recovery that is ongoing in Santa Fe, a small school district forced to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the school shooting within a nine-month period.

    The stories were written for the school board and administrator audience but provide interesting perspectives for noneducators as well. If you haven’t had a chance to read them, I’ve provided links to text versions in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing what you think.

  • School Counselors, Mrs. Obama & Jill

    This video was shared today by former First Lady Michelle Obama in honor of National School Counseling Week. You might recognize someone's voice at the start.

  • Mathletes and School Counselors

    So the Mathletes did a video for National School Counseling Week. When worlds collide…


  • 'Communications 101' Column Published

    Communications 101 is my latest column published in American School Board Journal. Given the turnover that school boards see each winter following an election cycle, it’s a a good time to look at the do’s and don’ts of communications. Consider this a how to help your board become educated about the norms and protocols of your governance team.

  • 'History Lessons' Feature Published

    History Lessons, my timely feature focusing on the challenges of teaching U.S. history in volatile times, appears in the new issue of American School Board Journal. Read it in HTML form here or download a PDF of the story here.

  • 'Safe Messages' Around Suicide

    My latest column for American School Board Journal focuses on tips for districts on how to prevent the spread of contagion, or copycats, in the wake of a student suicide. Read the PDF by going to, or the HTML version here.

  • ACTE Annual Conference

    Last week, I spent four days in San Antonio shooting the annual Association for Career and Technical Education Conference. At the end, I produced a 3-minute slideshow that was presented at the final general session and then updated it to provide an overview of the conference.

    The conference featured a keynote speech by Jenna Bush Hager on Nov. 29, the day before her grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, passed away at the age of 94.

    To see individual photos from the conference, go to my Meetings & Conferences page.

    You also can check out the video below.

  • Freelance Story: Grief After Shooting

    Last year, I wrote a freelance story on how schools on the Texas Gulf Coast were recovering following Hurricane Harvey. The same week, 12 months later, I returned to Galveston County to report on another disaster: the shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead and 13 injured.

    How the district is dealing with the aftermath of two large-scale traumatic events in a single school year is the focus of “After It All Falls Apart,” published in this month’s American School Board Journal. It is available to read in PDF form here and is also on the National School Boards Association website in text form here.

  • A Tree Where Houses Used to Be

    Background: This photo, which I first posted seven years ago today, is from a trip I took to Joplin to report on the schools' efforts to reopen following a devastating tornado. At the time, my then-supervisor did not see "the point" in my going to Missouri to write the piece, because she thought it was not a good use of time and resources.

    Obviously (and respectfully), I disagreed. At the time, I had not written a feature in two-plus years, and felt an urgent need to keep my skills sharp. I also thought the story presented an important lesson that bears repeating no matter how many times you hear it: The best leaders are those who are the most resilient in tough times.

    Resiliency has since become a recurring theme in much of my work, and I point back to this trip as the true start of that.

    To see the piece, go to

  • Seven Freelance Articles Published

    Seven of my freelance articles focusing on a diverse range of topics have been published in four national magazines this fall.

    Three of the articles look at trends in K-12 schools and higher education. Two look at staffing services that help companies deal with a tough hiring environment and operational challenges. One examines whether to make crucial capital investments to expand business opportunities, and another looks at the challenges of printing on recycled plastics.

    Below are brief summaries of each story. Click on the link to read or download the pieces in PDF form:

    American School Board Journal

    Teachers in Turmoil: The nation’s K-12 teachers are not happy—and they’re making their frustrations known. This past spring, they walked out of classrooms in six states to protest years of low pay and poor working conditions. An unprecedented number ran for seats in their state legislatures and for Congress. Add to that a 23 percent decline in the number of people completing teacher preparation programs, and you have a crisis in the making. (October-November)

    Old Schools Never Die: Closing a neighborhood school is one of the most difficult and controversial decisions boards and superintendents make, even if doing so makes educational and financial sense. Community emotions run high before, during, and after the process, and the blowback is often fierce. (October-November)

    International Educator

    Deciding with Data: Higher education institutions—large and small, public and private—are increasingly tapping into data to make better informed decisions about their international recruitment efforts. Doing so, however, raises a number of questions, as this story for NAFSA: Association of International Educators notes: Among them: What types of data should be gathered? What customer relationship management (CRM) tools should be used to slice and dice the data? How can international enrollment managers take what is gleaned from their data and use it with internal and external audiences?  (September-October)

    SGIA Journal

    Before You Make a Capital Investment: More and more small and midsize commercial graphics and printing companies are expanding, thanks to new, business-favorable tax laws and a steady economy, as this story in the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association magazine notes. With three out of four small businesses planning to invest in technology, equipment upgrades and hiring staff, here are some things to watch. (September-October)

    The Green Evolution: Concerns over costs and quality control have prevented printing on recycled plastics from taking hold on a widespread basis. But it is likely coming, thanks to the rapid evolution of digital technologies and retailer demand. For now, companies need to know the issues associated with printing on recycled materials and start educating their clients about the drawbacks and long-term potential of doing so. (July-August)

    Staffing Success

    Navigating a Candidate-Driven Market: A strong U.S. economy combined with a tough hiring environment has resulted in prolonged job vacancies—which can be very good news for staffing companies that have the right recruiting strategies in place. Written for the American Staffing Association’s magazine. (September-October)

    Agility Supporting Growth: For small and mid-size staffing companies, focusing on generating revenue is critical to success. Some are finding that outsourcing their “back end” office operations is the way to go. (July-August)

  • Playing Catch Up

    "When it rains, it really pours... "

    Two weeks ago: Headshots for the MSA Academy, Nutcracker promo shoot, photography for Motion X Dance DC, corporate headshots and a two-plus day retreat on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

    Last week: Washington-Indianapolis game, three-day trip to Texas for a magazine feature, day-long conference photography in DC, engagement party for Nick and Conner in NC.

    This week: Writing, editing and catching up.

    Oh my. Feeling blessed.

  • School Photos: Caroline County, Md.

    What I like most about photography is that it gives me a chance to look at familiar things from another perspective. And everyone is familiar with the elements that you see in a school — the playground, the logos, signs, and murals.

    Combine that with an opportunity to collaborate with people I respect and admire, and you have a great time working together on a project, such as the one I did last month in Caroline County, a rural farming area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

    Just after students were released for the summer, I was hired by Sandi Barry to take photos of the exteriors of the district’s 10 schools. Sandi, who became the district’s public relations coordinator in January, is a longtime colleague and friend from the days when I worked with the National School Boards Association.

    Sandi and I collaborated on various projects during her tenure at the Maryland Association of Board of Education, and it was obvious from the start that we share a number of things in common. One is an interest in photography, and we have talked on occasion about looking for ways to work together since I went out on my own.

    The task at hand was to photograph the school exteriors for use on the district’s website and in framed prints that will be displayed in the board room. The only rule was that no students or staff could be shown.

    As we discussed the project, Sandi said she also wanted me to look for things that “catch your eye” to see what I could find. The challenge was to creatively illustrate the things and places we pass by daily and rarely take time to look at or study. A photographer’s dream job, in my opinion.

    This selection represents just some of the photos; about one-third of what I took is in my Facebook album here. In addition to the school photos featured in the album, I also included a few landscapes, two photos of a church that has been converted into a meeting space, and photos taken of the Chesapeake Culinary Center, a restored building that opened in 1901 as the Caroline County High School.

    I’m curious to see what you think of the result, and grateful to Sandi for the opportunity to collaborate again.

  • GMAC Conference Photography

    Last week, I shot the Graduate Management Admission Council's annual conference in Boston June 27-29. Photos were edited on site throughout the conference for an event-concluding slideshow that aired at the end of the final general session. Included in the final slideshow were photos taken after the last session started, providing the audience with a full picture of the overall meeting.

    Here is the slideshow.

  • Freelance Articles Posted to Site

    Nine freelance articles published since April have been posted to the New/Recent Articles section of my website. This includes three pieces in which I also shot the photos. You can access them by clicking on the links below.

    Working Vacation (August 2018): Despite what naysayers believe, the idea that summer is just a two-month vacation for educators could not be farther from the truth. While some take on second jobs to make ends meet, others dive into learning more about their profession so they can come back stronger in the fall. Written for American School Board Journal.

    All About the Money (August 2018): It’s always a good thing for the public to know how tax dollars are being spent. And, given the struggles many districts have faced due to cuts that date back almost a decade, it is incumbent on school leaders to paint an accurate and ongoing picture of the financial challenges they face.  Written for American School Board Journal.

    Education Abroad (July-August 2018): Study abroad programs are going through a slow but steady evolution. Now in almost every college and university in the United States, the size and structure of these programs vary depending on student demand, faculty support, and the individual institution’s long-term goals.  Written for International Educator. 

    Generation Why (June 2018): The Valentine’s Day shooting that killed 17 at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School could represent a tipping point for student activism and civic engagement. No longer content to sit on the sidelines, these students — led by Parkland survivors — are marching and protesting at a rate not seen since the Vietnam War. Cover story and photographs for American School Board Journal; to see more, go to the Visual Storytelling section. 

    No More Game of Phones (June 2018): The measures schools have taken to enhance security have evolved greatly in the almost two decades since the Columbine High School shooting. However, internal communications when a situation erupts have always been a sticking point. Solutions that work well and easily often are overlooked and underrated, complicated in part by an ongoing unease about what technology can and should do in crisis situations. Written for American School Board Journal.

    Working with Alumni (March-April 2018): As U.S. colleges and universities work to boost international recruitment efforts, alumni who have graduated and returned to their native countries are sought after resources. But working with alumni can present a series of challenges if you don’t have the proper elements—organization, resources, and understanding—in place. Written for International Educator.

    Full STEAM Ahead (May 2018): In a small Tennessee community, three schools have been turned into the first K-12 STEAM cluster in the nation, systematically incorporating arts (A) into the traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum. Written for Techniques, the magazine of the Association for Career and Technical Education.

    Rogue on Board (April 2018): A rogue board member who hogs the spotlight, constantly stirring things up, can derail even the best-run school districts. Time that can — and should — be devoted to more pressing matters is spent addressing issues raised by a member who has no individual power but uses the position as a bully pulpit. Written for American School Board Journal.

    Preschool Push (April 2018): More than a half century after Head Start was initiated, questions persist about how to best serve young children, as policymakers, parents, and school leaders wrestle with the question, “When should a child’s formal education begin?” A growing research base shows that high-quality pre-k programs have both short- and long-term benefits for students, but bringing those programs to scale remains challenging due to long-standing questions over funding and teacher quality. Written for American School Board Journal. 

  • Freelance: The Rogue Board Member

    A new communications/public advocacy column I wrote appears in the current issue of American School Board Journal. See it here.

  • More Family News for the Day — Whew!

    And things just keep getting more surrealCongrats, son!

    And in other family-related news, Jill co-hosted a Facebook live discussion today on the second season of "13 Reasons Why" for the American School Counselor Association. To see the video, go here.

    I'm beginning to think "Our Reality Show" is a good name for this blog...

  • Emma's Life as a Resident Educator

    I’ve always said Emma is the best writer in the family, and her storytelling skills are in evidence both in this beautiful video and in the short blurb she posted tonight about her year as a resident educator (RE) at Point Park. Congratulations, sweetheart! Your mom and I are so proud of you!


  • Jill Quoted in NY Times on '13 Reasons Why'

    My wife, Jill, is quoted in a New York Times story today on the second season of “13 Reasons Why,” the controversial Netflix series that revolves around a teen’s suicide. You can read the story here or see the relevant paragraphs below.

    At the end of each episode, a character in voice-over directs viewers to, a resources site created by Netflix with guidance from nonprofit groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American School Counselor Association.

    “Netflix is taking their responsibility seriously,” said Jill Cook, the assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. (Ms. Cook says the association has no financial relationship to Netflix.)

    Ms. Cook initially contacted Netflix last year to express her organization’s concern that the depiction of adults on the show as clueless — a counselor doesn’t report concerns to the principal, parents have no idea that their kids are having torrid sex upstairs after a school-night family dinner, dads watch DVDs instead of Netflix — would discourage students from seeking help. For the show’s resources site, it helped create the discussion guides, and for its own website it recently posted a template letter that school administrators can send to parents.

  • The Story of Generation Why

    My oldest son received his master’s degree on Thursday. Less than 24 hours later, a 17-year-old gunman killed eight of his classmates and two teachers in a high school only 16 miles from my childhood home.

    The shooting at Santa Fe High School was and is disturbing for all the reasons you can imagine: Another senseless loss of lives. Another incident of gun violence in a country marred by decades of it. Another realization that, no matter how many steps local districts take, preventing someone determined to come into a classroom with a firearm is perhaps just … not … possible?

    My four children are 25, 21, 20 and 20. Ben and Emma were 16 months old when Columbine occurred. Kate was 2 and Nicholas was in first grade. We count ourselves lucky that nothing like this happened to them when they were in school.

    What does that say about our society?


    This school shooting was the third in eight days and the 22nd since the start of the year in the U.S. It occurred just three months and four days after 17 were slain at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School, which led to two student walkouts and the March for Our Lives events across the nation.

    I was at the March in Washington, D.C., taking photos and working on a freelance story about youth who were galvanized by the movement started by Stoneman Douglas students. I didn’t write the headline for the story, which looked at whether the Florida shooting could lead to a new era of civic engagement, but believe it is perfect.

    It reads: Generation Why.


    That’s the burning question asked first and most often when something like this happens. We are on an endless search for motive, a trend that will be the path to answers. Camps form within minutes, if not seconds, on social media. The phrase “thoughts and prayers,” no matter how sincere in intent, now is considered a synonym for doing nothing.

    At the March, I interviewed more than 20 students and adults for a series of portraits that would accompany the story. (Some are in the magazine article; you can find the portraits in expanded form here.) I was struck by the kids’ determination not to go through life afraid of going to school.

    Despite our need to understand why something happens, we are stubbornly resistant to one-size-fits-all answers, which leads to an endless round robin of he-said, she-said rhetoric that does no one any good. It’s not guns; it’s people. It’s not people; it’s guns.

    Grieving quickly turns to shouting. Nothing happens. And we wait, knowing that it likely — inevitably — will happen again.

  • STEAM Story Published by ACTE

    Tennessee's Maury County Schools, located about 50 miles from Nashville, has embarked on an ambitious K-12 STEAM initiative in one of its communities. My story (with photos) about the resurrection of Mount Pleasant is the lead story in this issue of the Association of Career and Technical Education's magazine, Techniques. Read more about it here.

  • Early Childhood Feature, Photos Published

    My four-page freelance story on the push for improved preschool programs is featured in the current issue of American School Board Journal. See the story, which includes six of my photos, here.

  • March for Our Lives: A Sample

    Photos from today’s March for Our Lives taken from the 6th floor of the Newseum. More to come soon from this moving event.

  • ASCA Honors Top School Counselor

    The American School Counselor Association, the organization where Jill works, recognized its School Counselor of the Year at the Kennedy Center today. I could not be prouder of the work my wife does on this program, which she helped create and has nurtured for more than a decade.

    Kirsten Perry, who works at Lawndale Community Academy in Chicago, won the 11th annual award. And, in her first major speech since leaving the White House, former First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the event for the third consecutive year.

    Mrs. Obama recognized Jill and the ASCA staff at the start of her speech, then focused her remarks on the positives in an uncertain time. Here are a few quotes from the speech:

    "While it was nice to hold this event in the White House last year, this was never about the White House. It was never about me or Barack, and it's never about the handful of people who happen to be in power at any given time. Folks who model decency and dignity and integrity for our kids every single day, see, that's who we are. That more than anything is what shapes our children and that's what makes America great.

    "Trust me, I know this work isn't easy, especially right now. I know there's a lot of anxiety out there. And there's no denying that our kids, what they see on TV, the kind of behavior being modeled in public life — all of that, yes — impacts their behavior and their character. But at times like this the work you are all doing is even more urgent. It's even more critically important. See, you all have the power to teach our kids what it means to go high when others go low. You have that power.

    "Our counselors and educators have a far bigger impact on our kids' lives than any president or first lady. ... You all serve as living, breathing examples of the kind of people they should aspire to be. You don't get dragged down by the headlines, by the false claims about our children and our neighborhoods, you don't have time for that nonsense because you're out there doing the work.

    "No matter what's going on right now, out there, all that noise, you know that our young people are the future, and the most important thing we can do as individuals and as a nation is to believe in all of them, to invest in all of them and to build schools and communities worthy of their boundless promise."

  • 17 Killed: It's time to DO SOMETHING

    Wrap your thoughts around the following paragraph. Say a prayer. And for God’s sake, DO SOMETHING.

    "This is at least the third school shooting this year, and one of the deadliest on record. Beginning with Columbine 19 years ago, more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus, according to a Washington Post analysis of online archives, state and federal enrollment figures, and news stories. That doesn’t count dozens of suicides, accidents and after-school assaults that have also exposed children to gunfire."

    — Source: The Washington Post, 2/15/18

  • After the Town Hall

    So I watched the CNN Town Hall as part of research for a story I’m writing on school shootings. In many respects, it had the feel of a community wake and the start of a larger conversation that is 20+ years too late.

    You can’t help but be moved by the raw words and visceral responses of a community traumatized by yet another horrific incident on one our nation’s campuses. Kudos to those who went into this knowing they would be roasted, such as Rubio.

    Most of all, kudos to those who said the time for talk is over. Don’t say something; do something.

    It’s worth noting those who were conspicuous by their absence. Why did the governor and the FBI not show? Why won’t state leaders engage these kids in public?

    Why? That’s the lingering question no one seems to be able to answer. But the tide could be turning.

  • More Thoughts on Schools and Gun Control

    I’ve been giving the situation in Florida a great deal of thought over the past several days and have a few observations:

    1. What makes this school shooting different than similarly horrific incidents is you have a community of teens who has had enough and is willing to do something about it. Say what you will about timing, grieving and place for these types of debates, but denying the power of these future leaders to galvanize and force change at a time when our government is stuck in its same-ole, same-ole battles is the equivalent of impersonating an ostrich. (An ostrich that, BTW, can’t decide whether to bury his/her head in the sand or a chosen part of his/her anatomy.)

    2. Saying these kids are fake actors or are having their statements written for them is a either a blatant misunderstanding or utter lack of respect of their intelligence and values.

    3. These digital natives are smart, pissed and have access to tools to bring their message to a worldwide audience in a nanosecond. They have no patience for platitudes, thoughts and prayers, no matter how sincere we are. Lip service is out; action is in. The fact that they are grieving openly while demanding change is not something that should be dismissed, but heralded.

    4. We talk about the current generation’s lack of civic engagement. And yet, when kids become engaged about something that goes against society’s longstanding beliefs/mores, we try to dismiss or disparage them. You can’t have it both ways. A bedrock of engagement is the knowledge that people can and will disagree before reaching consensus, and being comfortable enough in ourselves to allow that to happen in a civil manner. If, sadly, the pain and suffering of others is what has to happen to bring change, then we should be applauding them for their courage instead of denigrating them or dismissing their opinions.

    5. Note that I’m not making a blanket statement about gun control, espousing conspiracy theories, or disparaging the values and beliefs of others. There’s plenty of that going around already. My hope is that this level of engagement from our kids — the ones we claim are our future leaders — can be appreciated, respected and, ultimately, valued.

    #CNNTownHall #StudentsStandUp #ParklandStudentsSpeak

  • Jill Featured on NPR Panel

    Jill was on National Public Radio's "Kojo Nnamdi Show" today talking about responses to school shootings in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., slayings. I'm so very proud of her.

    Listen here.

  • New Freelance Articles Published

    Two freelance articles — one a feature on the state of the student press — appear in the new issue of American School Board Journal. To read the pieces, click on the links below.

    Student Press (February 2018): Student journalists in 13 states have press freedoms and protections, but administrators in the rest continue to review and censor school-sponsored publications under a 29-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision. But officials say the tide appears to be turning, at least in some areas.

    Public Comments (February 2018): The public comment portion of any school board meeting can turn quickly into a communications debacle for the board and district. Over time, however, courts have ruled consistently that the public has a right to raise and air complaints during an open meeting, even when individual employees are named.

  • So Long, Houston

    Eight days, six school districts, six family members, four bar stops, three Shipleys, two Whataburgers, two longtime friends, two hs football games, one Astros clincher, 1,200 miles driven.

    Til next time, Houston.

  • Following Harvey's Trail

    Earlier this month, I spent a week taking photos and reporting a story on Hurricane Harvey for an upcoming issue of American School Board Journal, the National School Boards Association’s magazine. Having written on the aftermath of natural disasters before, I wanted to understand Harvey’s far-reaching impact on communities and schools in the wake of the late August storm.

    Being there from Sept. 11 to Sept. 18 gave me the chance to follow Harvey along much of its 300-mile path from Rockport, near Corpus Christi, to the Louisiana border. At this point, cleanup was kicking into gear and schools were just resuming in many of the impacted communities, although it will be some time before those near the storm’s eye will be open again.

    In the hardest hit areas, the loss was overwhelming. Contents of family life spilled out into yard after yard and neighborhood after neighborhood, mixed with swollen sheetrock and the growing presence of mold. “Strong” was the byword used in many communities as they demonstrated an unheard of level of resilience in the face of an economic and environmental tragedy. The generosity of others — some fellow community members, some total strangers — was constantly on display.

    The story will appear in the November issue of the magazine, and I’ll be sure to share it here. For now, follow my camera on a day-by-day journey through a state that is injured, but not broken. And check out more photos on my Facebook photography page here.

  • Art Therapy Story Published

    Art therapy is a fast-growing but still relatively new practice around the world, having started in the early 1970s in the U.S. and Britain. In a story for the magazine International Educator, I looked at how this type of therapy is moving beyond the visual arts to incorporate dance, music and other forms to promote healing around the world.

    You can see this and other recent pieces I've written at

  • Picking Up STEAM

    Two more recent freelance stories look at the effort to integrate the arts into STEM curriculums around the country. The stories, which are part of a Technology column I write for the National School Boards Association, can be found under the header “Building Up STEAM” at

  • '13 Reasons Why' Story Published

    A freelance story I wrote on the “13 Reasons Why” phenomenon and the effect it is having on school districts is featured in the current issue of American School Board Journal. The story looks at how school districts were caught off guard by the Netflix show about the death by suicide of a teenage girl and the tapes she leaves behind, as well as the potential legal and ethical ramifications for school districts.

    You can find the story at

  • Jill & '13 Reasons Why'

    In her role with the American School Counselor Association, my wife Jill has been fielding a number of calls about the ongoing controversy surrounding Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” the TV series about a teen girl’s suicide.

    Earlier this week, she appeared on the National Public Radio show On Point, which you can stream here. Last week, Jill  was part of a webinar that included representatives from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Association of School Psychologists.

    The webinar, titled “A Teachable Moment: Using 13 Reasons Why to Initiate a Helpful Conversation about Suicide Prevention and Mental Health,” drew more than 1,500 participants. You can stream it here.

    Very proud of my spouse and the work she is doing on this extremely important topic!

  • New Freelance Articles, Photos

    Two new freelance articles and several of my photographs appear in the current issue of three national magazines. All have been uploaded to the website and are now available for viewing.

    • Several photos from last fall’s trip to Zurich, Switzerland appear in the Association for Career and Technical Education's March 2017 issue of its flagship magazine, Techniques. The trip focused on how Colorado schools are adopting facets of the Swiss apprenticeship model, which ACTE delves into with a feature and Q&A with the Swiss ambassador to the United States.

    You can see the photos and the stories they accompany here. For a freelance story I wrote on the trip for another publication, go here.

    Simple Logic, which is in the current issue of American School Board Journal, is a technology column that focuses on the need for more computer science and coding classes in K-12 schools. Today, only 24 states allow students to count computer science classes as part of their high school science credits. While more than a half million computing jobs are unfilled in the U.S., just 42,969 computer science students graduated into the workforce in 2015-16.

    LMJ Scholarship — Atticus Lee: The sixth in a series of stories about recipients of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s LMJ Scholarship appears in the current issue of Diversity & The Bar.

    For more stories and features I've written over the past year, go to

  • Our Reality Show: An Update

    The first two months of 2017 have been as much of an adventure as the previous year was, and it’s showing no signs of letting up. In the new year alone, I’ve been to Boston twice, Asheville and Durham, N.C., once, set up two photo exhibits, photographed the Women’s March, finished headshots for 10 people, had two corporate shoots, completed three freelance stories, and taken pictures of a regional production of “Billy Elliot.”

    Combine that with Jill’s job responsibilities, which included First Lady Michelle Obama’s last official function and the National School Counselor of the Year event, and some busy kids and … whew.

    All of this is to say that it's been an extremely exciting year for the business, thanks to your support and words of encouragement. I also have a large ongoing project, several conferences already lined up for later in 2017, and a variety of other irons in the fire.

    Unfortunately, I did get behind in keeping the website updated, so I’ve spent a couple of days trying to catch up. I've made some tweaks, and added some new content. Here’s what you’ll see if you decide to look around:

    • New index pages for the Events & Performances section, with categories dedicated now to Meetings & Conferences, News & Feature Photography, Concerts, and Theater/Cabarets. This provides a better description of some of the types of photography I am doing.

    • An updated Art & Dance section, with photos from a shoot last week.

    • A completely updated blog, with more photos and videos.

    Thanks, as always, for your interest. I hope you’ll come back and visit again soon!

  • Photographing the Presidents

    In my 30-year career, I've been fortunate to see — and photograph — the last five presidents at various events in Texas, North Carolina, New York City, and Washington, D.C. The first four times I saw the nation's commander-in-chief are from the pre-digital days (Reagan at the Challenger Memorial Service, Bush I at NASA's Johnson Space Center and at a campaign stop in Tyler, Clinton at the 200th anniversary of UNC-Chapel Hill).

    I don't have any photos from those events scanned, but here are a few selections from others — Teacher of the Year ceremonies, NBC's Education Nation — dating back to 2003 and featuring Bush II, Clinton, and Obama.

    For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Mrs. Obama Honors School Counselors

    At today's School Counselor of the Year event, in her final public event as First Lady, Michelle Obama finished with these powerful words for the youth in our country:

    "I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong ... Don't be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope, never fear."


    Jill is quoted in this piece promoting the ASCA School Counselor of the Year event that will take place tomorrow at the White House. So very proud of her and the much deserved recognition school counselors are receiving.

  • National School Counseling Week

    This from Jill: "It has been a great National School Counseling Week! A big thanks to Connie Britton, Glenn Cook's celebrity crush, for her support. #NSCW17"

  • DeVos: A Poor Choice for Department of Ed

    Since the election, I've taken most of my political commentary over to Twitter, and tried not to weigh in here on the current "situation." It's just easier that way, and I'm not in the mood to offend my friends.

    But the appointment of our new Secretary of Education is worth more than 140 characters of snark that everyone can digest with ease.

    FIrst, I'd like to congratulate all of the choice proponents who've declared war against a proven, but not perfect system. Today, thanks to an unprecedented tiebreaker, you won. Our nation's children lost, especially those who are low-income, dealing with disabilities, and are traditionally marginalized. If you think student debt will get better because we have a billionaire running the education system, think again.

    Second, to Ms. DeVos, please join the other cabinet members who have managed to purchase power from this administration. Now, I hope you'll all get together for happy hour and salute the president with a rousing chorus of "I'm Your Puppet."

    Third, for those of you who voted for Trump because he is a businessman who does not represent business as usual in Congress, congratulations to you too. As my wife's grandmother used to say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

    Peace out.

  • Apprenticeship Story Published

    Apprentice Approach, a freelance story that looks at how schools in Colorado are adopting facets of the Swiss apprenticeship model, appears in the new issue of American School Board Journal. You can read the story the story I wrote here and see a slideshow of photos from my trip with the delegation in the Events section of my website.

  • "Aftershock" Looks at K-12 Schools Post Election

    “Aftershock,” a story I wrote that looks at the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and its effect on K-12 schools, has been published by American School Board Journal a week before the inauguration. Read the story here.

  • Conference Photography in Las Vegas

    Highlights from the Association for Career & Technical Education's "Vision 2016" conference, held Nov. 30-Dec. 3 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. This slideshow of my photos was shown at the final general session.

  • Five Freelance Articles Published

    Five recent articles published in three different magazines this fall have recently been uploaded to my "New/Recent Articles" section. You can check them out by clicking on the links below or by going here.

    Act Globally (November-December 2016): Increasingly, higher education drama programs are offering international experiences for their students through academic exchanges and education abroad opportunities. This story, published in the November-December 2016 issue of International Educator, focuses on how these opportunities focus on skill development as well as social justice and global issues in the developing world. 

    Leading the Leap (December 2016): Online assessments are here to stay, regardless of whether your state has embraced the Common Core Standards. In this column for American School Board Journal, I look at how a toolkit scheduled to be unveiled in December 2016 will help schools and districts assess their readiness and ability to effectively deliver these assessments.

    Cracking the Literacy Code (October 2016): Cracking the code on literacy, especially in majority-minority school districts, is no easy task. As this story in American School Board Journal notes, large-scale initiatives are costly and time intensive, and the needle on achievement rarely moves quickly. Earning buy-in and support from community and business leaders is critical, as is the need to provide strong professional development to teachers and a rigorous evaluation system that can accurately determine whether a program is working. 

    Technology Evolution (October 2016): In today's device-filled world, the tools students and teachers use can be terrific, but they have proven time and again to be no replacement for quality instruction. As this column in American School Board Journal notes, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is taking on the conundrum with its second revision of its technology standards for students. 

    Finding the Class of 2009 (October 2016): The latest in a series of articles written for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association's Diversity & The Bar magazine focuses on Nila Bala, a public defender in Baltimore, Md.

  • Becoming CareerWise in Switzerland

    CareerWise Colorado, a statewide initiative that aims to place 20,000 high school students in apprenticeships by 2027, led a delegation of educators, state government and nonprofit leaders, and workforce development officials on a five-day tour to Zurich, Switzerland, last week to study the country’s apprenticeship programs.

    Led by officials from CEMETS, a division of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute, the tour included site visits to Libs, CYP, Zurich Business School, Swisscom, and EWH-Zurich, which provide a variety of training programs to Swiss students. In Switzerland, 70 percent of students choose to do apprenticeships in more than 200 occupations.

    CareerWise, a nonprofit that formally launched in September with the support of the state’s governor and several large Colorado companies, is inspired by the Swiss model for connecting employers and educational institutions.

    CareerWise Colorado’s goal is to serve about 10 percent of eligible high school students in the state within 10 years. Starting in 2017-18, businesses and corporations in the fields of information technology, financial and professional services, advanced manufacturing, and hospitality will offer high school juniors and seniors paid, on-the-job learning experiences in high-demand fields.

    One highlight of the trip was a visit to the Bern home of U.S. Ambassador Suzi Levine, a leader in the initiative to implement Swiss-style apprenticeship programs in the U.S.

    Ambassador Levine and her husband, Eric, were gracious hosts and described in detail their passion for bringing the model to K-12 schools and community colleges in the U.S.

    To see more photos, go to my Facebook albums here and here. For more information, visit the CareerWise website at or the CEMETS website at

  • Making K-12 Ed Regulations Interesting

    How do you make the regulatory process surrounding the nation’s largest education law interesting? Take a look at my story in the Summer 2016 issue of ASCD’s "Policy Priorities," which focuses on the development of regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act, the long-awaited successor to No Child Left Behind.

    In addition to the main story, you can also read a sidebar that includes a step-by-step breakdown of the process. (And it really is interesting, too.)

    For more recently published articles, visit

  • 11 Stories Published in USF Magazine

    This spring, I served as one of two writers for the annual edition of enVision, the magazine of the University of South Florida’s College of Engineering. In all, I wrote 11 stories that were published in the magazine, which is available to students and alumni.

    The assignments were a fascinating mix of alumni profiles and features on work currently underway by students and faculty at the Tampa-based college. You can read more about the individual stories or access a PDF of all of them by clicking on this link.

    Happy reading!

  • Tech Columns Appear in ASBJ

    One of my freelance jobs is serving as a technology columnist/contributing editor to American School Board Journal, the magazine where I worked for 13 years. The technology column, which started in January 2015 and appears six times a year, looks at trends and issues of relevance to school board members and top-level administrators.

    Here are two of my latest efforts. Click on the link to read them:

    Security Goes High-Tech: Technology and security are inextricably linked in K-12 schools. From dealing with crisis situations to safeguarding student and staff data, how you use the tools at your disposal is critical. (July-August 2016)

    Online Learning 2.0: Educators nationwide continue to search for ways to meld traditional and digital learning for all students. It’s a combination that has proven full of promise, with more than a few lessons—and potholes—along the way for school boards, administrators, teachers, and communities. (May-June 2016)

  • Football Story Wins AM&P Award

    "Comeback Season," a freelance story for American School Board Journal, received a Silver Award for Feature Writing in the Association Media & Publishing's 2016 EXCEL Awards competition last night. My friend and former co-worker, Kathleen Vail, also received a Silver for her piece, "Mission: Space."

    The awards, handed out during a banquet at AM&P's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., were in the 20,000 to 50,000 category. To read the story, go here.

  • Back to Summerton

    Note: Today is the 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to the desegregation of America's schools. For the 50th anniversary, I made several trips to Summerton, S.C., where the first of the five cases that led to Brown was filed. Last month, for the first time in more than a decade, I returned to Summerton. This is what I observed.

    If you would prefer to read this report in PDF form, download it here. To see the previous stories I filed for the Brown v. Board anniversary, go to my Award-Winning Stories section.

    For someone who doesn’t like cars much, I spend a lot of time behind the wheel.

    Between commuting and long rides to far-flung places, the miles are starting to add up. I have to take my wallet out of my pocket, just like my dad did, or my back starts to hurt. I need to get out and stretch more often, even though that adds time to the drive.

    I was thinking about these and many other things as I moved our daughter’s things home from Florida to Northern Virginia — a 900-plus mile commute — last month in a Budget rental van. Because the van’s top speed was 70 mph, no matter what the law allowed, common sense dictated that the ride needed to be broken up into two longish days.

    The advantage was that I had time to think and ponder. I also could stop to take pictures at several places along the way.

    One such place was a return visit to Summerton, S.C.

    First to Footnote

    Sixty-six years ago, a group of black residents from South Carolina’s Low Country filed a lawsuit that eventually would change history. Four years and one day later, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court made sure of that.

    The court decision in Brown v. Board of Education led to the eventual desegregation of our nation’s public schools and helped spark for the Civil Rights Movement. The roots of Brown, however, started in Summerton, a fact that is better known now than it was when I first went there in the fall of 2003, if only slightly.

    I was collaborating with a longtime friend, Cecile Holmes, and a group of her journalism students from the University of South Carolina. Cecile grew up in Columbia, about an hour from Summerton, and as a longtime religion editor, was interested in the role of African-American pastors in the fight against segregation. I was interested in the history and in the effect it had on education in the Clarendon District 1.

    Working with Cecile’s students, we went to Summerton seven times between September and December 2003 to learn about the community, its schools and what led to the lawsuit. The results of our collaboration were published in my magazine, American School Board Journal, as part of a 50-page special report marking the Brown anniversary.

    My story, “From First to Footnote,” looked at events before and after Briggs v. Elliott, the first of the five cases that eventually became Brown. The legal action started in 1947, when petitioners led by the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine sought a bus so black children would not have to walk as many as nine miles each way to school.

    A subsequent lawsuit, filed by farmer Levi Pearson, was dismissed, but service station attendant Harry Briggs and his wife, Eliza, sued to challenge the “separate but equal” status of blacks. They were represented by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

    For the story, we conducted extensive interviews with DeLaine’s children as well as current Clarendon officials and Joe Elliott, the grandson of the school board chairman named in the lawsuit. At the end, Joseph DeLaine Jr. — the torch bearer for his father and the lawsuit — said he might have to reach out to Elliott, who found himself ostracized when he started speaking in favor of integration.

    It was a small sign of hope at the end of a long and tortuous saga, one that saw families lose their jobs and homes. DeLaine Sr.’s church was burned by segregationists; he fled the state and never returned. U.S. District Judge Walter Waring, who supported the plaintiffs, was forced to resign his position and leave South Carolina altogether.

    Kill ‘Em and Leave

    The year after the Brown v. Board decision, a man from Barnwell, S.C., released the first of his many hit singles and embarked on a fractured version of the American dream. James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” released in 1955, started a six-decade career that saw him crowned as the “Godfather of Soul,” the father of funk and the forefather of hip-hop. He is the most sampled artist of all time.

    Brown’s childhood — he was born to a teenage mother in a small wooden shack near the Georgia border, about 100 miles northwest of Summerton — was not unlike many black children in the South. Growing up in extreme poverty, moving from town to town and house to house, he left school after the sixth grade, had a brief career as a boxer, and spent time in a juvenile detention center after a robbery conviction.

    “Nothing is simple when you’re poor,” author James McBride writes in Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. “Poverty, for example is very loud. It’s full of traffic, cussing, drinking, fisticuffs, wrong sex, anguish, embarrassments, and psychic wounds that feed all sorts of inner ailments and create lots of loose ends.”

    What makes McBride’s book, released this spring, such a fascinating and gripping read is that it’s not a traditional biography, but a series of profiles of the people who played a role in Brown’s life. What emerges from the book is a man full of contradictions, driven by such an unshakable fear of loss that he trusted no one.

    “Behind the looking glass, behind the bluff and the ranting, the rages, the hollering, and the shouting, was a man so torn by conflict that he snuck off to smoke cigarettes so that no one would see him,” McBride writes. “Here was a man who rarely drank or cursed or let down his guard in public — which meant in front of people, in front of anyone, period; an incredibly lonely, overwrought, and sensitive man. A man who lived alone inside himself.”

    On one hand, Brown valued the promise of education for poor children — black and white — and helped calm communities inflamed by violence during the Civil Rights Movement. On the other, he treated his band members, wives, and children terribly and distrusted banks so that he left gigs with paper bags stuffed with cash.

    “If you want to keep your money,” he told one of his band members, “bury it in your yard.”

    No Outsiders

    I was in a rental car with Illinois plates the first time I drove through Summerton in the fall of 2003. We were just starting our reporting, and I wanted to get a feel for the place before we met with DeLaine’s children. I quickly found that outsiders weren’t welcome.

    As I drove down U.S. 301 and then onto Main Street, a police car pulled in behind me. I was heading toward the old Scott’s Branch High School, where there’s a small marker honoring the original plaintiffs, and had moved into the “other side of town.”

    The patrol car’s lights flickered and I pulled over. The officer checked my driver’s license and asked what I was doing. I explained and then was allowed to leave, but the random check shook me. The officer looked me in the eye and told me to “be careful”; I wasn’t sure what he meant.

    This past April, no one stopped me as I drove down the same street in the moving van. I’m not sure if folks weren’t paying attention, or whether the fact that the van had Georgia plates on it was a sign.

    Eventually, I found my way to Liberty AME Church, the site where the original petition that became Briggs v. Elliott was signed. I had to navigate around roads that were partially or fully closed due to floods last fall that devastated the Low Country. Even though 19 people died statewide in what was described as a 1,000 year flood, no one from Clarendon County perished. Many lost homes and property, however.

    As several men worked in and around the church, I introduced myself to the Rev. Robert China, who became Liberty Hill’s pastor in November 2014. China, a South Carolina native who is not from Clarendon County, showed me around the church and talked about the hardships of his parishoners. He showed me with pride the original petition, which was framed and hanging on the wall.

    “There are a bunch of roads still out, even though it’s been six months,” he said, referring to the flooding. “You’d think they could have done something to fix them and help our folks get back on their feet, but that’s not how it seems to work around here.”

    China talked about the church members attending a play In Charleston on the case, and how a museum in nearby Sumter is featuring an exhibit on Briggs v. Elliott. Later, when I mentioned that Joe DeLaine Jr. and Joe Elliott appeared on a panel together after the play, one of the church members shook his head.

    “Well, what do you know? I guess time does change some things.”

    Words, Context Matter

    In May 2004, after my magazine story was published, Cecile invited me to speak at a Brown v. Board panel in Columbia. Also on the panel was Edwin Darden, a longtime friend and colleague who has taught me more about race and race relations than I would have imagined possible.

    Ed, who was raised in New York City, has worked with schools for years, helping to ensure that boards, administrators and teachers look at education through an equity lens. We don’t always agree, in part I’m sure due to our backgrounds and past experiences, but my trust and respect for his opinion is paramount.

    I took Ed to the Summerton Diner, the white restaurant in the middle of town. Despite the mid-May humidity, there was a palpable chill in the room. The waitress was polite, but like the officer I had met months before, it was obvious that Ed — who is African American — and I weren’t necessarily welcome. When we left, he was visibly shaken; at the time, I’m not sure I fully understood why.

    You could say that children of my generation don’t know what it’s like to be part of a segregated education system. At 51, I’m part of the first group of students who went to integrated public schools starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so if you’re threading the needle of the truth, you would not necessarily be inaccurate.

    But as one of my first editors reminded me: “Words matter.” More important, as Ed likes to say, “Context matters.”

    Race and Power

    Naively, I grew up thinking that integration was how things worked, that segregation and overt racism were going away. After all, wasn’t that the law?

    My hometown district was racially mixed, increasingly so as I moved from grade to grade. The prism I used to evaluate people was not based on skin color, but on attitudes, work ethic, and the like. As a kid, I had no frame of reference or understanding about the deep, ingrained attitudes and beliefs of the people around me.

    I was reminded of that again that day with Ed at the Summerton Diner.

    Even though institutionalized racism was no longer legal, the institution had not been taken away completely. Far from it, in fact. And all it takes is one look at the many regressive practices and policies of the past two decades to see what should have been obvious all along.

    Racism, at its very core, is about power.

    It’s about holding on to power and using it to control others. It’s about dictating movement in the status quo on your terms, a distorted version of “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” And when that power is threatened, when the shifts in the status quo go against our beliefs and values, we fight rather than adapt. At that point, power matters more than words or context ever could.

    Thank God some people — in Clarendon County, in Topeka, Kansas, and in other places across the U.S. — chose to fight the power.


    Thirteen years after my first visit, Summerton remains the best example of time moving slowly in small Southern towns. If you read my story, “From First to Footnote,” about the Briggs v. Elliott case, you might be interested to know what has happened to many of the sources mentioned in the piece.

    • In September 2004, Congressional Gold Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously to Harry and Eliza Briggs, the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, and Levi Pearson.

    • DeLaine’s children — Joseph Jr., Ophelia, and Brumit — spent years talking about the case and its impact on their family. Joe DeLaine Jr., 82, who served on the presidential commission that oversaw the 50th anniversary commemoration of Brown, lives in Charlotte and remains active with the BDP Foundation, the nonprofit that is working to help educate Clarendon school children about the case and improve opportunities for the district’s students. Ophelia DeLaine, now 79 and living in Florida, wrote a book on her father and the case. Dawn of Desegregation was published by the University of South Carolina Press in December 2011 and remains in print. Brumit, also known as B.B., died in 2012 after several years of poor health.

    • The Levine Museum of the New South’s interactive exhibit, “Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, The Guts to Fight for It” debuted in Charlotte in 2004 and was shown in New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles and other locations before returning to Charlotte again in 2011. It is on display now at a museum in Sumter, S.C.

    • U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring, whose dissent in the original Briggs v. Elliott lawsuit was the first against “separate but equal” schools and served as the foundation for Brown, was honored with a life-sized statue at the federal courthouse in Charleston, S.C., in 2014.

    • Sadly, it’s no surprise that desegregation failed miserably. Today, signs in Summerton point you to Clarendon Hall, a private, almost all-white school promoting “Excellence in Education in a Christian Environment.” No mention of Briggs v. Elliott is found on the Summerton website, although you can read about it on the Clarendon County website. 

    • The public school district, Clarendon 1, is all but ignored. But thanks to the efforts of Rose Wilder, who was recognized as South Carolina’s Superintendent of the Year in 2014, Clarendon 1 now is the second highest performing among South Carolina’s high poverty schools.

    The ongoing challenge for the district, in addition to the high poverty rates of many of its students, is to increase enrollment. Because Clarendon County's overall population has declined, so has enrollment, which is down by more than 30 percent over the past decade and now stands at just under 900 students. 

    The district has started advertising with billboards along Interstate 95, using the theme “Come Grow With Us.” Ironically, a majority of the children on the advertisements are white.

  • 2016 School Counselor of the Year

    First Lady Michelle Obama honored Katherine Pastor of Flagstaff, Ariz., as the 2016 School Counselor of the Year during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House on Thursday. Obama has honored the past two winners of the American School Counselor Association program at a White House ceremony and will host a third event before the administration’s term ends next January.

    Pastor, who works at Flagstaff High School, was introduced by one of her former students, Wyatt Whitegoat, a Navajo Indian who lived in a dorm on campus. Whitegoat is now in his senior year at Cornell College in Iowa, earning degrees in kinesiology and psychology.

    Also speaking at the event was John King, acting secretary of education. Among the attendees: former Duke and NBA basketball player Shane Battier.

    Pastor and the others recognized by their states will conclude several days of events in the nation’s capitol tonight with a banquet at Union Station.

    Note: As many of you know, my wife, Jill, has coordinated this program for ASCA since its inception. The program is one of the largest of the year for the organization, and would not be possible — or as successful — without a total team effort from the entire staff. It was nice (and a bit overwhelming), however, to hear the First Lady give my wife a shout out by name in her speech on Thursday.

    To see more photos from the event, visit my Facebook album here.

  • A Great Teacher Lost

    This is an incredibly sad day for the teaching profession. Mary Beth Blegan was, is, and forever shall be a class act. I was incredibly fortunate to get to know her during the decade I served on the National Teacher of the Year selection committee, and I saw first-hand the great work she did for her fellow teachers and for the position.

    Mary Beth, shown reading to kids in this 2005 photo taken from the Daily Globe in her hometown of Worthington, Minn., was named the 1996 National Teacher of the Year by President Clinton. She then worked as the first Teacher in Residence for the U.S. Department of Education from 1997 to 2000 before returning to Minnesota, where she was a consultant for the St. Paul Schools.

  • New Freelance Articles Published

    Two recently published freelance pieces, one focusing on the effect of student trauma and the other on Career and Technical Education, are now up in the "Writing" section and available to read here.

    “Responding to Student Trauma,” written for ASCD and published in its Education Update newsletter, looks at how trauma affects students ability to learn. According to the Defending Childhood Initiative, more than 46 million children are affected annually by trauma, with one in 10 facing five or more violent incidents in a year.

    Children exposed to repetitive trauma are at risk for a variety of physical and mental health issues—anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and a propensity for substance abuse. (Education Update is a member-only newsletter of ASCD; you can purchase print copies of the article and publication here.)

    The second piece, “Coming Around Again,” looks at the comeback story of Career and Technical Education in the February 2016 edition of American School Board Journal, where I am a contributing editor and technology columnist.

    Congress’ passage of the long-awaited successor to the No Child Left Behind Act was a major victory for many who opposed the constraints posed by the federal law on school districts, but perhaps the biggest win was for CTE. The program had seen its influence on policy decline amid demands for more academic rigor, college access, and standardized testing.

    Hope you’ll take some time to look at these pieces and glance through others that I’ve done over the past several months.

  • Profile on Guilford Superintendent

    Earlier this year, I was fortunate to write a profile on Guilford County Schools' Mo Green, the superintendent who moved into education after working as a corporate attorney. Green's story — we talked for almost two hours — is fascinating reading.

    You can find the story — "Head of the Class" — in the Minority Corporate Counsel Association's magazine, Diversity & the Bar. Or take a minute and read it on my website at

  • Comeback Season

    “As a journalist, I’ve always been fascinated by two subjects: The intersection of high school sports and community and how schools recover from trauma, whether it’s a natural disaster or a terrible event. The story of Sayreville has both.”

    Those words are the start of a six-minute slideshow I wrote, edited and narrated to accompany my cover story that is featured in the newest edition of American School Board Journal.  The story focuses on how a New Jersey school district responded to a hazing scandal that forced the cancellation of the 2014 high school football season.

    The slideshow is designed to give readers more insight into the reporting and what I learned during my two-plus days in Sayreville in late September. It also is a showcase for many of the more than 100 photos I took during the trip. Three of those photos appear in the story and on the cover of the magazine.

    I am extremely proud of this "Visual Storytelling" package, which examines the effect the scandal had on district leadership as well as students. The photographs give you a sense of the town and community, which strongly supports its high school athletes. The writing looks at how, after the resignation of the athletic director and the involuntary transfer of a Hall-of-Fame football coach, Sayreville’s team returned to action this fall with new staff in place and a heightened awareness about the effects of hazing and bullying.

    You can read the story, titled “Comeback Season,” online for a brief time here, or you can download a PDF here as well. Check out the slideshow too, and let me know what you think of this approach in the comments.

  • Better Make Room

    Through her work with the American School Counselor Association and the First Lady's Reach Higher Initiative, Jill has been spending quite a bit of time at the White House this year. Today, she was there to help launch the "Better Make Room" campaign that seeks to provide educational opportunities for students around the United States. â€ª#‎Bettermakeroom‬

    Very proud of my lovely wife...

  • Control (and Stop) Gun Violence

    In general, I try not to be a provocateur on social media's chosen issue of the day. I prefer not to rile people up, in part because it’s a time suck and in part because you rarely hear substance over the shouting.

    But given our family’s circumstances, it’s impossible not to talk about mental health issues, especially as they relate to children. And with the staggering increase in mass shootings in this country, all too often tied to people with mental health problems, it’s becoming more difficult not to say something about gun violence.

    So here goes…


    We might not agree on gun control, but I think we can agree on gun violence. And there’s way too much of it these days.

    Two weeks ago, a 26-year-old gunman killed nine people at an Oregon community college before committing suicide. Earlier this year, nine people were killed at a church in Charleston, S.C. Before that, there were mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado and a school in Connecticut.

    And the list goes on and on. Between 2004 and 2013, according to numbers compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 316,000 firearm deaths. More than 1,000 mass shootings, an all-time high, have occurred in the U.S. since 2013. This year, in Chicago alone, there have been more than 2,300 gun-related crimes, and it’s estimated that someone is shot in the Windy City every three hours.

    Yesterday, Jill was visibly moved and affected after attending a daylong “Domestic Violence Awareness Summit” in Washington, D.C. Hosted by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who suffered a severe brain injury in a 2011 mass shooting that killed six and injured 13, the summit featured various speakers who talked about the ravaging effect of gun violence on their lives.

    Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, formed the group Americans for Responsible Solutions to talk about ways to stop gun violence, particularly against women. They have raised almost $25 million for a political action committee to promote legislation that will address gaps in gun control laws.

    The statistics they cite are just as staggering as some of the others I’ve cited:

    • Women in the U.S. are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if that person has access to a gun.

    • More than two-thirds of spouse and ex-spouse homicide victims between 1980 and 2008 were killed with firearms.

    • More than half of all murders of women in the U.S. are committed with a gun.

    “We don’t have to agree about everything, but we can agree on this,” said Giffords, who believes people convicted of stalking and domestic abuse should not be allowed to possess firearms. “We can change our laws. We can fight for responsible solutions.”


    Just after the Oregon shooting, I walked into a local gas station. A TV was tuned into CNN, which was running non-stop coverage. I shook my head and said to the clerk, “This is sad.”

    The clerk, who was either in her late teens or early 20s, put her fingers up in air quotes and said, “Yeah, and I’m sure they’re going to call it a mental health issue.”

    That’s when I knew I had to start saying something about this. Yes, the majority of mass shootings occur because someone who is mentally ill gains access to a firearm.  But it terrifies me that mental health issues and gun violence have become inextricably tied.

    Here’s another fact: Most people with mental health issues are not violent, but the potential exists. As a parent of a child with a mental illness, the thought of her ever coming near a gun frightens the hell out of me. I see her impulsivity and her potential to flash to anger while manic/depressed/mix of both, and I can't imagine what would happen if she had a firearm in her hands at the point when things are totally irrational.

    What does it say about this country’s attitude toward difficult issues that we can talk about mental health awareness and services only in the face of record gun violence? I think it says a lot.


    Recently, while working on a freelance story about trauma-informed public schools, I interviewed several people with experience in dealing with crisis situations. One interview was with David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

    Earlier this year, five students and three teachers filed a lawsuit against the Compton Unified School District, saying the system fails to educate kids who are exposed to repeated violence and trauma. The lawsuit also will test whether “complex trauma” is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act; if so, schools could be required to direct funds to ensure students receive adequate care.

    Schonfeld, who is not involved in the Compton lawsuit, said he is not sure whether the case has legal validity. But he then told a stirring story about the effect of long-term poverty and violence on a community.

    “I was talking to a group of teachers recently in an inner-city school system that is known for having gang violence and extreme trauma, and one said to me, ‘If 20 children die in a suburban school district, it’s called a natural disaster. When it happens here it’s called a typical day’,” he said.

    Schonfeld was shocked by the teacher’s seeming belief that “it was ‘normal’ for children to be in gangs and ‘normal’ for children to murder other children.”

    “That’s never normal for a child,” Schonfeld said during the interview. “Common maybe. Tragic definitely, and something that happens with alarming frequency, but as soon as your staff starts to think it’s normal than they’re not going to help the kids try to do something about it.”

    The teacher later apologized for his remarks, but Schonfeld said they illustrate the crux of the problem in many school districts where violence is common.

    “These kids experience so much loss, and adults don’t try to help with it because they’re overwhelmed and don’t know what to do,” he says. “So the kids stop asking for help and turn to their peers, gangs, and other forms of support. Just because they stop talking doesn’t mean they don’t need help. In reality, they need it more than others.”


    The previous story has limited bearing on the current gun control debate, and is only tangentially related to the issues the panel brought up yesterday. But I was surprised by how affected I was by the interview.

    Just like you, I don’t have a definitive answer, only opinions informed by my individual and familial circumstances. I’m not, despite what you may think, against responsible gun ownership.

    Jill and I know people who collect guns for their historical value. They are responsible, good citizens on this planet. They take safety seriously, make sure all the rules are followed, and are firm believers in the 2nd Amendment. They feel just as horrible as anyone when something like this happens, and they're working to do everything they can to encourage responsible ownership.

    What people don't seem to get in this debate is there’s no either/or solution. I would never own a gun, but that's due to my personal situation. I don't see how anyone with a child/friend/loved one who is lacking in stability would even consider owning a gun, especially if child/friend/loved one could gain access to it in some way.

    The key here is that we’ve got to put our polarized views aside long enough to find some reasoned, thoughtful solutions. We've got to do something, sooner rather than later.

    Gun control has been a debate in this country for generations. There should be no debate about preventing gun violence. #StopGunViolence

  • Jill Featured in Dating Abuse Video

    Jill is featured in this video with Tim Gunn and others discussing domestic violence and teen dating abuse. The video was put together as part of Liz Claiborne’s “A Time to Talk Day,” which was focused on the company’s “Love Is Not Abuse” curriculum available to schools. For more information, go to

  • Promotion Ceremony

    Emma's 6th grade promotion ceremony, held on June 21, was a very special occasion. She was one of 35 kindergarteners from Lorton Station's charter class to complete all seven years (K-6) at the school. On the same day she was voted Most Likely to Succeed by her classmates, our little girl also received a Silver Presidential Award for her work ethic and outstanding achievement. Go Emma!

  • FIeld Trip to D.C.

    Emma's 6th grade field trip was held on April 13, the morning after I returned from NSBA's annual conference. Starting at 7 a.m., we toured the Capitol, the Smithsonian Air & Space and American History museums, the Lincoln, Korean, and Vietnam memorials, and Arlington Cemetery. Unfortunately, I had to bail before Arlington to head to NY.

  • Teacher of the Year Honored

    President Obama honored Rebecca Mielwocki as the 2012 National Teacher of the Year in ceremonies in the East Room at the White House. Mielwocki, who lives in California, was picked for the award by representatives from various education organizations. I represented NSBA on the selection committee for the 10th time.

  • Education Nation: Post Script

    I recently had a chance to cover NBC’s Education Nation summit, an event that at times uneasily mixed the obvious with the surreal and left me feeling both overwhelmed and optimistic at the same time.

    The ambitious multimedia event, streamed live on the web and shown in excerpts on NBC News and the conglomerate’s multiple cable channels, drew a who’s who of star power from education, politics, and entertainment. On its own, the people gathered for this event would be enough to overwhelm. But after 2½ days of bickering, tears, posturing, and wary but determined hope, I was left fried.

    Did anyone get off their pre-established soapboxes? Not really. Will it result in lasting change? The jury’s still out. Did it pay attention to a deserving — if not the deserving — issue of the 21st century? Absolutely.

    Overall, the sessions I saw — except for one notable exception — generally were balanced. The events touched on math/science performance, the global economy, the need for highly qualified teachers, the battles between reformers and unions, and, especially, the plight of low-income minority students in high-need urban schools.

    On that front, it was not anything new or revolutionary. But then again, the issues are not new.

    One of my biggest fears was that the event would be a two-plus day infomercial for “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary that I have very mixed feelings about. And those fears were not allayed when the film was shown under the tent in Rockefeller Center to an invitation-only crowd of 300 that stuck around for a panel session featuring director Davis Guggenheim, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, and Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

    Canada is impressive. His fervent desire, entrepreneurial spirit, and outright chutzpah have led to a great success story — and an ever-present American Express commercial — in one of the toughest areas of the country. I appreciated the fact that he went out of his way to note that charters are public schools, some traditional public schools work as well as his, and the crisis we face is one we all should embrace.

    The Rhee/Weingarten battles, which continued throughout the summit, became tiresome, as did the relentless bashing/undermining of the work of teachers’ unions. I will never go down as the biggest fan of unions, but it was nice to see Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter come to Weingarten’s defense with regard to contract negotiations.

    Speaking of Duncan, the man is everywhere. I have never seen an education secretary be so passionate about getting his message — whether you agree with it or not — out to the public. And Nutter provided a nice counterbalance to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose allegiance to Rhee was a factor — but not the sole factor — in losing his bid for re-election earlier this month.

    If one group was underrepresented, it was school board members.

    My executive director, Anne Bryant, was featured on the closing panel that aired Tuesday, and board President Earl Rickman also was at the meeting. However, only a handful of school board members attended, and they represented other groups, such as parent organizations that were invited to the summit.

    That fact wasn’t lost on Andres Alonso, chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools. Speaking at a session on "change agents," he pointed out that no school board members were on the panel and only two were in the audience.

    “They should be here discussing these issues,” Alonso said. “Reform in the absence of the board of education is problematic.”

    Amen to that. It’s why the absence of school board members continues to disturb me, both for personal and professional reasons. For districts to be successful, school boards must be part of the conversation. I was — and am — very concerned that the constituency of my organization did not have fuller representation. Worse was the powers that be at NBC didn’t seem to care.

    That said, you can’t help but be fired up about the future after what became a three-day pep rally to improve education in this country. I’ve always said that everyone involved in education knows what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and who should be part of the conversation. Where we disagree is on how to do it.

    If we know what works in public education, then let’s just do it. Bickering between adults gets us nowhere.

  • New York: 9/11/09

    Five years ago, on the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, I was in New York with Ben, who was about to start rehearsals for Ragtime. Because we were trying to work out the rehearsal schedule and how he would acclimate to his new surroundings, I got to know the assistant principal/dean of students on a first-name basis. This is what I witnessed that day.


    This morning, I was sitting in the assistant principal’s office at my son’s new school when the principal walked in and asked, “Do you think we should have a moment of silence? There are four times we could do it.”

    They proceeded to go down the list: 8:45 a.m., 9:03 a.m., 10:05 a.m., 10:29 a.m. The times were etched in both men’s memory.

    “The last one is during lunch,” the assistant principal said.  “Too noisy,” the principal said. “I don’t think we should do it then.”

    At that point, they agreed to two, one-minute moments of silence — marking the times that the planes struck the south and then the north towers of the World Trade Center.

    This low-key approach, coming on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, was refreshing, especially given that my son is now in a New York City public school just 5 miles from the Twin Towers site. No extremist hyperbole, no talk of terrorists, just two short moments to pause and reflect on a day that changed our world.

    Just down the street, at the corner of 8th Avenue and West 48th, a group of firefighters from the Engine 54 station gathered on this drizzly morning. Together, they walked across the street to a short memorial service honoring the 15 firemen from Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 who were killed on 9/11.

    Another Anniversary Story

    On a related note, I was in Chester, Pa., when 9/11 occurred, reporting on a story for my former magazine about the takeover of the state’s lowest performing school district by a private education management company — Edison Schools. Five years later, I went back to see what had happened to Chester and Edison in the interim. The resulting story, “Failing District, Failed Reform,” can be accessed here.

  • Greenbuild in Phoenix

    I moderated a Nov. 11 session on school boards at the U.S. Green Building Council's annual Greenbuild conference in Phoenix, which drew 28,000 registrants. The highlight was the opening plenary session featuring former Vice President Al Gore and a concert by Sheryl Crow. I was fortunate enough to get on the floor and got these shots with my little digital.

  • Jill Featured in NBC Story

    Jill is featured in this anti-bullying piece that was produced by NBC News. The piece aired on a number of NBC-owned stations this week.

  • Abandoned: The School Left Behind

    Just off a state highway in rural North Carolina, a school that educated elementary-age children for almost 70 years sits vacant more than a decade after its doors were closed for the last time.

    For more photos and the rest of this essay, go to “Abandoned: The School Left Behind,” a new piece in the Visual Storytelling section.

  • New Freelance Stories Published

    Six new freelance stories, including a profile of an acclaimed professor who has moved from the telecommunications industry to research that will reinvent laproscopic surgery, are featured in the Spring-Summer 2015 issue of enVision. The publication is produced twice annually by the University of South Florida's College of Engineering. Read the stories at

  • How My Website is Woven

    Having your own website is in many respects like taking care of a pet, a hybrid dog-cat-goldfish no less.

    Often it’s very active and dynamic (think dog), with changes occurring on a daily (if not more) basis. At times, though, it’s easy to let things just sit (sort of like the cat) or allow updates to float around in cyberspace (think fish).

    Animal metaphors aside, the past three to four months have been so hectic that I haven’t paid as much attention to my site as much as I’d like or need to, considering it is the portal into my mind and my business. Between freelance assignments, photo gigs, and business/family travel, I’ve let it sit for too long.

    That's not a complaint, just a fact. So I’ve taken some time over the past few days to make a slew of updates, and I hope never to get this far behind again.

    Here’s what you’ll see: A revised homepage, fully up-to-date blog, new freelance articles, a new “Columns” page, and additions to the “Performances,” “Events,” and “Visual Storytelling” sections. I still have new headshots to post as well.

    I hope you like the tweaks and changes. Take a minute to peruse and let me know what you think. All comments and suggestions welcome…

  • Stories Published in National Magazines

    Life as a freelance writer has its challenges, but the diversity of topics you get to work on is often fascinating.

    Since March, I’ve had six different pieces published by national organizations, and more are coming soon. Of those already available, five of the six are for two education associations (ASCD and the National School Boards Association), while the sixth is a piece written for the Minority Corporate Council Association (MCCA). 

    Even the MCCA story has an education component. Titled The Future of the Legal Profession and published this week, it focuses on the winners of the organization’s LMJ Scholarship. The winner who starts off the story,  Jiali “Keli” Huang, has a fascinating tale to tell.

    Here is a list of what has been published recently. (Click on the link to access or download any of the pieces, unless otherwise noted.)

    • Early Start on STEM (May-June 2015): Early colleges take on many guises and forms, ranging from separate campuses that serve small groups of students in a targeted manner to schoolwide initiatives that offer college-level courses to all eligible students. Students at the STEM Early College, a partnership between North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools and A&T that opened in 2012, will graduate from high school with up to 60 hours of college credit in their chosen field.
    • Electronic School: Tech Visits (March-April 2015): Any school leader knows that ongoing success is contingent on factors that go beyond who lives and works in your community. When your technology programs are versatile enough to be replicated in other districts, that’s even better.
    • Principal Leadership: Focus on Professional Development (Winter 2015): The days of leadership by decree are gone, as this series of stories written for ASCD's quarterly "Policy Priorities" newsletter shows. Today, successful principals collaborate, communicate, and share responsibility with their teachers and staff. They understand the job has evolved to one that puts instructional leadership first, even when the mundane, though equally important, day-to-day administrative demands threaten to interfere.

    The next two articles, written for ASCD’s “Education Update,” point you to a landing page where you can read a short sample of the article. Entire issues are available for purchase and download.

    • The Final Push Before Summer (May 2015): What schools can do between the end of standardized testing and the ringing of the last bell to set the stage for student success in the next year and beyond.
    • Reaching Them Early On (March 2015): Schools and cities are scrambling to provide early intervention as infants and toddlers suffer from the highest rates of poverty in the nation.

    Meanwhile, as part of my work for AASA’s 150th anniversary issue that was published in February, I’ve also written up and edited transcripts of interviews conducted with 16 top education leaders. The interviews, which are being archived and likely will be used online, provide a great deal of insight into the organization, its advocacy efforts over the years, and its victories and struggles.

    What is fantastic about this is that it gives readers an opportunity to see the full interviews, which had a lot of fascinating tidbits and insight that did not make it into the six features I wrote for the organization. (You can read individual stories or all six here on my website.) 

    The interviews include AASA’s current and former executive directors (Daniel DomenechPaul Houston) key former staff (Bruce HunterGary MarxFenwick English), board members who made a dramatic impact (June GablerSarah JeromeEugene White), D.C. area education leaders (Anne Bryant/Thomas ShannonGene CarterJack Jennings), state association leaders (Ozzie RoseWalt Whitfield), and longtime AASA members (Burke RoysterPeter Corona).

    Access the individual interviews by clicking on the person’s name, or see the entire set in one document here.

    Thanks for reading, and if you know anyone who’s in the market for a good writer, let me know. Right now, I don’t have much to work on, and as you can see, I like to stay busy.

  • STEM Early College Profile

    Last week, I went down to Greensboro, N.C., to — among other things — take pictures at the STEM Early College at North Carolina A&T University. The photos are for a story I wrote on early colleges for an upcoming issue of American School Board Journal. Not all will be used, but I thought this made for a nice photo essay on some of the work that is being done at the school.

    The STEM Early College opened in the fall of 2012 as a joint project between Guilford County Schools and A&T. It is the second early college the district has on the A&T campus. The school opened with 50 ninth-grade students and has added 50 each year (maximum enrollment 200). Students finish their state-mandated high school credits in two years and spend the next two years on college coursework. By the time they graduate — and almost 100% are on track to do so — they will have a high school diploma and up to 60 hours of college credit.

    Given the high cost of college tuition, the move toward early colleges is taking off. Guilford County, the third largest district in North Carolina, has the most early colleges in the nation.

    For more photos, go to my Facebook page here.

  • Baltimore: The Day After

    I’m no longer a news reporter, but I am a storyteller. That’s why I drove to Baltimore on Tuesday, pulled by an inexplicable force to capture what I saw and heard.

    The constant barrage of stories in the wake of Monday’s riots left me navigating a strange mix of anger and sadness. Long fascinated by American history, especially the unrest during the era in which I was born, I could not help but feel we’ve taken a huge step backward.

    What I saw confirmed a long-gestating belief that we’ve not come as far as I naively hoped and thought 10 years ago. As a society, we keep making the same mistakes over and over, doomed to repeat them with each passing generation because things don't fundamentally change.


    I’ve long had a fascination with Baltimore, located about an hour from where we live. The city is a study in racial and economic contrasts, from the beauty of the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards area to the rampant poverty, unemployment and crime in the western part of the city.

    On Tuesday, I drove past the stadium where we took our kids to their first major-league baseball game. No games were being played; when the Orioles took the field again the next afternoon, the stadium was empty.

    I parked on Franklin Street and started walking, almost by reflex, toward the theatre where Ben has performed in two national tours over the past three years. But I was pulled, camera in hand, toward Pennsylvania Avenue.

    I started taking pictures, all the while aware of my surroundings on this beautiful spring day. I smiled when someone told me to be careful, nodded at the two kids who asked if I was going "down there" to take pictures, and watched the helicopters circling overhead. As I walked past the small shops and buildings, many boarded up or closed, I did my best to ignore the occasional person who yelled at me to take their picture. Instead, I took random photos of what I saw as I moved through the Upton-Druid Heights neighborhood and toward the CVS Pharmacy at the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania.


    The CVS, as we all know by now, was one of the businesses burned during Monday’s riots in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man whose spine was severed while in police custody. It follows similar incidents in several U.S. cities following controversial actions by police, most notably in Ferguson, Mo., last fall.

    African-Americans in Baltimore have long had a difficult relationship with police. In Maryland, one-third of the state’s residents who are imprisoned come from Baltimore, costing taxpayers an estimated $220 million annually. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun reported that the city has paid $5.7 million over four years to settle lawsuits that accused the police of using excessive force.

    Walking through Upton-Druid Heights on Tuesday afternoon, several hours before the 10 p.m. curfew imposed on the city, I passed groups of people standing on street corners and in front of small markets and mom-and-pop stores. Many buildings and abandoned row houses, once a symbol of stability for African-American families in the city, are crumbling.

    At one point, I overheard a conversation between two women, probably in their late 20s. One was almost yelling about her former boyfriend, saying that he didn’t have work, wouldn’t find work, and was stealing all of her cigarettes. She said she wouldn’t take him back again, no matter “how good he is,” because he tried to stash items stolen during the looting at her apartment.

    Her friend just nodded.


    Baltimore is the largest city in Maryland, the nation’s most affluent state. Since riots in the late 1960s, the city has lost one-third of its population, and manufacturing jobs have dropped by 90 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for African-Americans is $33,610, compared to $60,550 for white households in Baltimore. Almost one-fourth of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, and unemployment among African-Americans ages 20 to 24 is an amazing 37 percent.

    This is difficult to reconcile when touring the Inner Harbor area and parts of downtown. But it’s not hard to see when you walk through Upton-Druid Heights, where half of the people live in poverty and 64 percent of black males are unemployed, according to the New York Times.

    Driving into Baltimore, radio reports noted that the National Guard had been sent to Baltimore. But despite a strong police presence at the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania, where camera crews were set up outside the CVS and a large crowd held up signs and chanted their protests, law enforcement was largely scattered. A gaggle of helicopters flew overhead, circling above in the clear sky.

    The National Guard was protecting the Inner Harbor, several miles away. The police department, who some would say caused the situation in the first place, was stationed in Upton-Druid Heights.


    Just before I reached the drug store, I saw a group of adults and kids painting a mural on an old building. The group is part of Jubilee Arts Baltimore, an organization that provides arts classes to the residents of Upton and Sandtown-Winchester. Part of the Newborn Holistic Ministries, Jubilee Arts is responsible for many of the murals that dot Pennsylvania Avenue, most of them celebrating African-American history and exhorting residents to find community unity.

    One of the Jubilee Arts volunteers told me the adults felt lucky to be working on the mural that day. Their places of business were closed in the wake of Monday’s riots, and schools weren’t open.

    While I understand why many businesses were closed and the Orioles game was cancelled, I have trouble reconciling the fact that schools were not open on Tuesday or Wednesday. For kids living in entrenched poverty, schools offer stability and, often, an opportunity to get a healthy meal. I can see why school leaders decided not to hold classes, given the unrest and tension in the city, but I can’t help but feel the kids were done a disservice.

    “It was good for the kids,” the volunteer told me. “They needed some place to go.”


    Over the past several days, I’ve been reading about Baltimore obsessively. It has affected me in the same way Hurricane Katrina did for many of the same reasons. I can’t help but shake my head and wonder what it will take for things to change.

    What will it take for police abuse to stop? What will it take for people to stop taking advantage of others, capitalizing on legitimate protests and twisting them into moments of violence and destruction? Will we recede back into our pre-established positions and comfortable lives until the next time something like this happens?

    As I drove home, I could not help but wonder: What will it take?

    For more photos, go to my Facebook page here.

  • Another Freelance Article Published

    Another magazine article published: "Electronic School: Testing Goes Digital," the first in a series of columns focusing on school technology issues, looks at the challenges districts face as they work to implement the Common Core State Standards.

    Check out this story and other freelance pieces at

  • Stories Focus on AASA's History

    The American Association of School Administrators celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015. For its February conference edition, I was hired to write six major stories on the organization’s history. The project took more than two months and involved more than 25 interviews as well as background research.

    You can read the digital edition of the magazine in its entirety by clicking here. PDFs of the individual stories can be accessed by clicking the links below.

    AASA’s Origins: A look at the organization’s beginning, which dates back to four months after President Lincoln was assassinated, as well as major developments throughout its 150-year history.

    Governance and Policymaking: How AASA’s governance structure has evolved over its history, plus major policy stances taken by the organization to help children be ready and prepared for school.

    Conferences and Networking: Professional development is one of the hallmarks of any membership association. This story takes a look at how AASA’s training for its members has evolved over time, from large conventions to working with specific niches of school leaders.

    Federal Advocacy: Known on Capitol Hill as a feisty, respected advocate for its members and the school children they serve, AASA has taken a number of controversial stands over its history to help improve public education.

    Faces of Leadership: The superintendency has long been a profession dominated by white males, but the number of women leading school districts has grown steadily over the past three decades. Still, the lack of African-American and Latino leadership in what is now a minority-majority school system nationally is troubling.

    Publications and Communications: Visible member services, such as publications, are critical to any association. Today, however, AASA’s communications efforts go far beyond the materials that land in a member’s home mailbox.

  • Articles in USF Magazine

    Five of my freelance stories, including a profile of new Dean Robert H. Bishop, are featured in the Fall 2014 issue of enVision, the twice-annual magazine of the University of South Florida’s College of Engineering. Check them out here.

  • 'Testing Online' Feature Published

    Another recent freelance story I wrote, focusing on the challenges of online assessments in schools, is featured in a recent issue of American School Board Journal.

    At least 33 states offer some form of online assessments, and that number is only expected to grow in future years. In “Testing Online,” I looked at the hiccups districts have faced in implementing online testing as they have worked to improve their technology infrastructure and broadband access.

    You can read it here:

  • Two Magazine Cover Stories Published

    Two freelance cover stories I've written for the National Association of Secondary School Principals are now available to read on my website

    The newest, published this month, is a profile of Jayne Ellspermann, who was honored as National Principal of the Year for her leadership at West Port High School in Ocala, Fla. 

    Also posted is my November 2014 profile of NASSP's Digital Principal Award recipients and the challenges they face in infusing technology throughout their schools.

    To see and download the stories, go to

  • White House Honors SCOY

    First Lady Michelle Obama honored 2015 National School Counselor of the Year Cory Notestine of Alamosa, Colo., as well as the finalists and semifinalists in a first-ever ceremony at the White House’s East Room on Friday. The ceremony was hosted by actress Connie Britton, who received Emmy nominations for her role as a school counselor on “Friday Night Lights.” My lovely wife, Jill, helps to coordinate the eight-year-old SCOY program for her organization, the American School Counselor Association, and allowed me to tag along with my camera.

    For more photos from this and other events I've shot, go to

  • Reflecting on the Freelance Life

    I’ve always found the creative process fascinating, whether it’s reporting and writing a story, composing and taking photos, or watching a show develop from page to production.

    The end result — the product — usually is less interesting, because it’s “done” and I’m on to the next thing. For years, I rarely looked back at stories I had written or photos I shot. Some find it interesting that I don’t go to every performance of every show that our kids do, or go to the theater every time I see Ben on the road. But I have no burning desire — or the cash flow — to do it.

    Since my father died in 2007, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on my childhood and what shaped me as I try to help in the shaping of my children. Today, almost eight years after his death, I am hyperaware of time and the opportunities we have to enjoy experiences or let them slip through our fingers. I understand that creating “art” — if you could call what I do that — allows me to keep his spirit alive.

    Perhaps it’s a function of getting older, or being a freelancer for these past 19 months, but the creative process I’m engaged in now forces me to look back and revisit what I’ve done and where I’ve been on a consistent basis. The daily photos you see here and on my Facebook photo page are a function of reflecting on past work — “Why did I shoot THAT?!?” — even as I’m trying to promote getting more work. And the writing jobs I’m seeking require me to showcase the work I’ve done before.

    As a lifelong fan of history (familial, cultural, and political), I enjoy analyzing and figuring out how past events have shaped and continue to affect us to this day and beyond. A number of the essays in this blog merge those interests, allowing me to be creative (I hope) and analytical at the same time. It’s my way of explaining how my parents, family and friends have affected my life and parenting style, or whether a significant cultural event or watershed moment has forced me to look at the world just a little bit differently.

    When I had a “regular job,” I could easily point back to what I had produced, how I had managed a budget, or how many trips I had taken. When I opened my writing and photography business in July 2013, I started with nothing and was tasked with creating something from scratch.

    The juggling act that represents a freelance life is no easier than juggling the parenting of multiple teenagers. In fact, the parallels are quite striking. You never are away from it completely. You are always looking toward the future while facing the present and — I hope — learning from past mistakes and victories. You alternately feel overwhelmed, grateful, and happy/sad/exhausted/indifferent/victorious — sometimes at the same time.

    Both require you to be on your toes and constantly creative. And, I’ve got to say, I do enjoy that, even if my toes hurt more than they should on some days.


    So, given that preamble, I recently decided to look back at what I accomplished as a professional freelancer during 2014. And I was surprised at how productive the year actually was. 

    Here’s a list:

    • Wrote 30 feature length articles for state and national publications, several of which have come out early this year. At least one featured my photography as well.

    • Regularly updated this blog with additional essays — including ones published on LinkedIn — and photographs.

    • Shot two national conferences.

    • Photographed multiple events in conjunction with Metropolitan School of the Arts (MSA).

    • Had 20 portrait and family sessions.

    • Developed a photo series that I've dubbed “Art & Dance," which led to MSA’s first-ever calendar featuring its own students. We sold more than 70 calendars and my business donated the net profit — $500 — to the school.

    Meanwhile, the Facebook photography page ( has grown to more than 1,300 followers. A website ( was set up to provide a reasonably priced method for selling prints and digital images of my MSA event pictures. More than 350 images have been sold, more than paying for the cost of the site and bringing in a small profit. I hope to expand the site to include more of my artwork in the near future.

    There’s a lot more where that came from, I’m sure. And now that I’ve spent a few moments reflecting, it’s on to the next project.

    The creative process demands it, as does the life of a freelancer.

  • Snowbacle 2015

    There’s a great Peanuts cartoon in which a single flake of snow falls from the sky and one of the characters exclaims, “Close all the schools!”

    Fairfax and other counties in Northern Virginia should have taken a look at that cartoon this morning. Instead, a wintery mix of bad timing, rush hour commute, poor planning and communication turned into an epic storm of a different, rancid kind.

    What was expected to be 1-3 inches of wet, powdery snow was just that, but it didn’t start falling until around 4:30 a.m., 2 ½ hours before sunrise and with temperatures in the low 20s. While many schools in the area decided on two-hour delays — a choice usually made by 5 a.m. before the first buses roll — Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun County opted to start at the regularly scheduled time.

    It was a big mistake, and one that likely will be a migraine for FCPS for some time to come.


    For some reason, I woke up at 3:30 this morning and could not go back to sleep. I knew the weather was expected to be iffy at best, and figured the kids would go to school on a two-hour delay, if at all.

    As the snow started to fall, I turned on the TV to look for the announcement and didn’t see one. Surprised, I woke Jill shortly after 5 a.m. and told her that it was a decision that Fairfax would regret.

    Our daughters, Kate and Emma, go to high schools on opposite ends of our house, which is on the county’s southern border. Kate is a senior at Mount Vernon, while Emma is a junior at Lake Braddock.

    Both girls, who are responsible drivers with a number of activities and/or work after school, said they wanted to drive alone to school. Kate’s commute involves Route 1, which is a state highway that usually is salted. Emma’s, on the other hand, involves a number of back roads that can be a challenge in tough weather.

    Somewhat worried, I decided to follow Emma, who was picking up a friend, and meet her at Starbucks for some morning coffee. Even I was not prepared for the streets near our home to be a hockey rink.

    We went just over a mile in an hour and saw two wrecks and multiple cars spinning out. On a hill, Emma and I were separated when a car in front of me stopped midway, and soon thereafter, I found myself playing chicken with a truck and a school bus that was fighting to gain limited traction. Fortunately, I was able to back up safely, get Emma parked, and take her home.

    By this time, parents and students were already venting on social media. And it wasn’t even 7:30 a.m. 


    Within two hours, the hashtag #closeFCPS was trending worldwide on Twitter, reminding me once again that the hardest decisions school leaders make come down to three things: personnel, student expulsions, and weather-related closings. All three, in one key aspect or another, are no-win situations.

    I learned this lesson while serving as a communications director for North Carolina's Rockingham County Schools. Geographically speaking, Rockingham County does not compare in size to Fairfax County, home to one of the nation's largest school districts. But it shared some similarities, with the potential for storms in the western end not affecting the southern or eastern portions of the county at all. So while roads were too dangerous to bypass in some areas, others would have nothing on them.

    Closing schools is an all-around inconvenience. Instructional days are lost and have to be shifted around. Parents have to scramble to find child care arrangements, or be faced with the prospect of missing work or leaving their kids at home for the day. It is not a decision that is made lightly.

    2013-14 was not a good weather year, as students and staff missed numerous days due to a seemingly never-ending winter. Fortunately, the weather gods have been kind in 2014-15, with only one day missed so far this school year.

    In large county districts, it’s worth noting that closing schools usually is an all-or-nothing proposition. And in developing school calendars (a subject worthy of its own debate, but not now), districts build in a certain number of inclement weather days for instances such as this. When a district operates on a two-hour delay, they get credit for the instructional day, even though classes are compressed and cut short.

    I’m not conservative on most things, but I am where the safety of my children is concerned. As inconvenient as closing or delaying the start of school may have been, it’s just not worth it to put your staff or students at risk. Putting teenage drivers on the road before sunrise during the early morning rush hour is scary enough.

    Several Maryland school districts made what I consider to be the right call from the beginning. They started with a two-hour delay, then some closed for the day when weather conditions did not improve. A similar approach, while not ideal, would have been welcome here.

    We were fortunate. Kate made it to school safely. I managed to get Emma home and then walked the mile to pick up her car. By this time, streets were finally salted and I made it home safely about 9:15.

    About an hour later, Fairfax County Public Schools issued an apology, noting the decision was made with “the best information we had very early this morning.” School board member Ryan McElveen, in a Twitter post favorited more than 5,000 times in less than three hours, said the decision not to close “was terrible.”

    “Clearly,” he wrote, “we screwed up. I am so sorry for all the hardship brought upon so many.”

    Let’s hope everyone has learned a valuable lesson, and next time something like this comes up, perhaps everyone truly will err on the side of caution and safety.

  • Reaching Higher for School Counselors

    Tomorrow, Jill leaves for a White House Convening meeting on school counseling and college admissions, the third in an ongoing series of sessions this year involving First Lady Michelle Obama’s office. 

    Mrs. Obama’s “Reach Higher” initiative, which promotes student access to our colleges and universities, has placed a terrific — and much needed — focus on our nation’s school counselors. The profession has evolved greatly since Jill and I met in the mid 1990s, and I’m extremely proud of the role she and the American School Counselor Association have had in leading that evolution.

    If you’re interested in reading more, check out “Not Your Mother’s School Counselor,” an article I wrote on the evolution earlier this year for ASCD. It was made available this week for non-members, and I glad to see that a piece so near and dear to my heart is getting some extra exposure.

  • Our Reality Show 5691 (In Dog Years)

    Why that title, you ask? It feels like it's been that long since I've had a moment to write, even though I've been writing steadily for the past two months. It's just not on Facebook or this blog, which I've made a commitment to keeping up to date.

    However, keeping that commitment has been difficult amid one of the busiest falls I can remember, which is saying something given our ongoing reality show. So to catch you up, here are a few highlights from just the past month in the whirlwind.

    • Jill was gone for nine days during the first three weeks of November, attending meetings in Atlanta and San Diego, a White House convening on school counseling and college admissions at San Diego State University, and then a presentation of the 2015 National School Counselor of the Year Award in Colorado.

    • During that time, Jeremiah was in final rehearsals and starting tech for MSA’s production of “The Nutcracker,” understudying the title role and performing as the Mouse King. Performances were this past weekend.

    • Emma finished her Lake Braddock dance team obligations just in time to jump into — in her words — a “buttload” of schoolwork that would make anyone drown. She also worked on the annual Frosty Follies with Jeremiah and her boyfriend, James. That premieres this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

    • Ben went from the “Newsies” opening in Philadelphia to Cleveland for two weeks and then Louisville. Last night they opened in Pittsburgh and move onto Baltimore next week. After making trips to upstate New York and Connecticut last month, I’m planning to drive Sunday to get him in Pittsburgh (weather permitting).

    • Kate has worked her way through her senior year, doing her studies, part-time job five days a week, and frequent babysitting. Meanwhile, she and a friend have started making plans — and are actively looking — to get an apartment next summer.

    • Nicholas, in the midst of his senior year, performed in his final fall concert with Vital Signs, among myriad other tasks that come with completing your final months in college. He also joined us in Philadelphia for the opening night, along with Ginno.

    Just watching them makes me tired. But in the midst of this, I’ve been reporting, writing and editing on what seems like a 24/7 basis since the middle of September. Freelance is feast or famine, and I've been squirreling away assignments in anticipation of things getting (somewhat) quieter in December and January.

    Clients during that period have been three national education associations (AASA, NASSP, and NSBA), the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, and the University of South Florida. I’m also starting work on two stories for ASCD, another client, that are due in mid-December. That does not include three photo shoots for clients, plus the dance team and MSA pictures.

    Recently I saw a sign that read, “This Christmas I want my family and friends to be happy and healthy,” and immediately lowered my expectations a bit. After this busy fall, I just want to survive the fact that all four of my kids have birthdays in December.

  • Jill on Comcast Newsmakers

    Look who is on the front page of the Comcast Newsmakers website. You can see the interview here:

  • School Counselors Focus of ASCD Story

    In addition to photography, blogging and consulting, I also write freelance stories for a number of state and national organizations.

    My most recent article is about a subject close to my heart and family: school counselors. The piece, “Not Your Mother’s School Counselor,” is published in the October edition of ASCD’s Education Update.

    The story looks at how three major changes have altered the course of the profession over the past 15 years: a national model that aligns the work of counselors with school improvement efforts; a movement away from direct services to individual students and toward comprehensive schoolwide programs; and the acknowledgement of the counselor’s role in expanding college access for all students.

    As many of you know, my wife Jill works for the American School Counselor Association, and was a huge help in gathering sources for the article, which is now available for purchase from the ASCD website. You can find more information about the story here, and read many of my other 2014 articles by going to the Freelance Articles and Columns section of this website.


    If you’d like to see some of the good work my spouse has been doing on behalf of her profession, check out this Comcast Newsmakers interview she did last month.

  • New Freelance Article Published

    A feature I wrote this past May is the cover story for the National Association of Secondary School Principals' magazine. You can check it out at

  • Freelance Stories on K-12 School Issues

    In addition to photography and blogging, I also write freelance stories for a number of national organizations. Two of my most recent pieces have been published in American School Board Journal and ASCD's Education Update.

    The stories are:

    • Money Matters: Construction Funds: Published in the September-October issue of ASBJ, my fifth "Money Matters" column looks at how a Delaware school district simultaneously built a $114 million high school while successfully turning around low student achievement.

    • Making Exceptions: The Challenge of Educating 2e Students was published in the August 2014 issue of ASCD's Education Update newsletter. This piece examines the difficulty schools have in educating twice-exceptional students, those who are considered academically gifted but with a disability that can impact their ability to learn.

    You can find more of my 2014 articles — 14 have been published so far this year — in the Freelance Articles & Columns section of this website.

  • Fourth 'Money Matters' Column

    My latest "Money Matters" column for American School Board Journal, focusing on the financial pressures school districts face as they try to serve more nutritious meals to students, is now available in the Freelance section of the website. Take a look...

  • Stories Appear in Three Publications

    Several freelance stories that I’ve been working on have seen the light of day in two national education magazines and a university’s twice-annual publication.

    • Five freelance stories — including four alumni profiles and a trend feature focusing on efforts to increase graduates in the booming computer science, computer engineering, and information technology fields — are featured in this edition of the University of South Florida’s magazine enVision. The publication is produced twice annually by the USF’s College of Engineering.

    • “Harassment vs. Free Speech: The Blurred Lines of Social Media” is the cover story in the May 2014 issue of ASCD’s Education Update newsletter. This piece focuses on how murky laws are making it difficult for teachers and administrators to fight back when they are harassed online.

    • My latest Money Matters column, “Snow Days,” appears in the current issue of American School Board Journal. The story looks at how this past horrible winter has wreaked havoc on school schedules, maintenance, and student achievement.

    You can access the stories by going to my Freelance Articles & Columns section.


  • Freelance article: ASCD & Teacher Leaders

    A series of stories I wrote on teacher leadership has been published in the Spring 2014 edition of ASCD’s “Policy Priorities” newsletter. Published under the headline, “Teacher Leaders: Going Outside the Classroom and Beyond,” this eight-page package of stories focuses on how schools are defining new roles for teachers. It includes sidebars on three teacher leaders, a piece on transforming leadership, and an executive summary.

    To get to the story, visit this link. For more of my freelance articles, visit

  • Not "Waiting for Superman"

    My dad was a lifelong fan of superheroes — Batman, Green Hornet, the Flash, and, yes, Superman — for his entire life. He drew pictures, collected comic books and action figures, and saw the art that was brought to life within the pages of a comic book.

    He also was a teacher, someone who taught art and history for more than 30 years and a person who affected the lives of thousands of students. When he retired, three years before his death, he questioned whether he had made a difference — even though those who were in his classes knew he had.

    I looked up to my father — and to my mom, whose career also was spent in classrooms — and respected his opinions, even though they differed greatly from my own at times. Today, watching the opening of “Waiting for Superman,” I wondered what he would have thought.

    Davis Guggenheim’s new film has ramped up the debate about our nation’s public schools in a way that the best films do. He hitches the narrative to sympathetic, interesting characters and draws them into a sort of good vs. evil battle with the highest stakes of all — the education of our children. But in doing so, he also misses the mark.

    “Superman” does not feature the staple of what makes superhero stories interesting — a great villain. By casting teachers and, more specifically, teachers unions in this film’s role, Guggenheim opts for a convenient target. (Examples of school boards and traditional administrators are shown in films made in the 1950s and ’60s — another cynical slap at traditional public schools.)

    And while the brush is not quite broad enough to paint charter schools as the be-all, end-all for public education — more than 80 percent underperform their traditional counterparts, by the way — the only success stories shown in the film are charters. I know, having covered education for a number of years, that you can find many traditional public schools that are doing great jobs as well.

    Guggenheim’s case is boosted by five adorable children — all with loving, sincere parents who are seeking admission to high-performing charter schools via a lottery. Innovative, charismatic reformers — Geoffrey Canada, who provides the source of the title, and Michelle Rhee, the controversial Washington, D.C., chancellor — are without question upheld as the heroes.

    You can’t help but feel for these families as the lottery balls drop, and knowing the outcome in advance — I won’t spoil it for you here, but needless to say it’s not a fairy tale — makes the inevitable ending all the more heartbreaking.

    As the credits roll, Guggenheim notes that, “The problem is complex but the steps are simple.” By failing to properly outline the complexities found in our public schools, he has done a disservice to viewers who are being called into action. In the end, nuance is all but lost in the interest of drama.

    Make no mistake, as a drama, “Waiting for Superman” works. But the more I think about the film, I keep coming back to a problem with its central thesis. By casting unions as the central villain, and noting that some people scam the system (and ultimately, the kids) for their own self-interest, Guggenheim takes the simplest path to make his point. This uneasy mix of cynicism and naïveté, while it works in telling his story, also feels somewhat contradictory and disingenuous to someone who knows how complex schools are to operate.

    I can’t help but think my father, who was no fan of unions, would have felt the same. He knew the superheroes he loved were characters from a comic book, and that real-life heroes could be found in traditional public schools every day. I just wish Guggenheim and those who are so quick to bash would look for those heroes, too.

  • Life in Real Time

    Last month, everywhere I looked during NSBA’s annual conference, officials from Missouri’s Joplin Public Schools were talking about Bright Futures. The district won the Magna Award grand prize for its program, which works to build partnerships between schools and community agencies to serve students in need.

    Today, the immediate future is not looking as bright, and the entire Joplin community is in need.

    On Sunday, a massive tornado struck this town of nearly 50,000, killing at least 116 people and injuring more than 1,100. It is the highest death toll from a single tornado since 1953.

    The event was the latest in a series of devastating spring tornados that have pounded communities across the Southeast and through the Midwest. Just four weeks ago, 315 people were killed when a series of tornadoes struck in five states — Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia.

    According to news reports, the late afternoon twister destroyed three schools, leaving two others and the central office seriously damaged as it ripped through the middle of this city 160 miles south of Kansas City. Graduation ceremonies for Joplin’s Class of 2011 were wrapping up at Missouri Southern State University when the tornado struck around 5:30; the high school itself was destroyed.


    The stories from Joplin shook me.

    Thirteen years ago, when we lived in Rockingham County, N.C., a tornado ripped through the small town of Stoneville. Two people were killed, including a young teacher, and 27 were injured.

    At the time, I was the school district’s public information officer, just 18 months on the job, with a 14-month-old daughter and 3-month-old twins at home. Jill was working as a school counselor at Reidsville Middle.

    The storms throughout that spring of 1998 were fierce. We were in a weather pattern much like the one we’re seeing now in the Southeast and Midwest. Severe thunderstorm warnings, almost every afternoon, came over the weather radio that we monitored. At one point later in the year, we had a hailstorm that was so bad my car was considered totaled.

    Late on the afternoon of Friday, March 20, we got word of a tornado warning in western Rockingham County. Buses were on the streets, with children having been let out of school just an hour before.

    Starting around 3:25 p.m., the tornado touched down and left cut a 12-mile path, missing four of our schools by less than 100 yards. The town of Stoneville was devastated. The teacher, Beth Mitchell, was killed just blocks from Stoneville Elementary; her mother, a library aide at the school, was seriously injured.

    That Saturday afternoon, I was sent over to assist in coordinating the press coverage. It was trial by fire because I had no training in handling crisis management. I decided to treat reporters the same way I would have expected to be treated when I walked in their shoes. For the most part, they were respectful, although one tried to attend the teacher’s funeral despite requests from the family that it be kept private.

    The staff, many of whom lived in the town, was shell shocked. School was cancelled until that Wednesday, and Jill and other counselors were on site when students returned.

    The rest of that school year is a blur, glazed by mourning. The staff’s bond was so tight, but you could see transitions coming. It was hard on everyone involved.

    Thirteen years later, I remain proud of the work of the staff in Stoneville, and of the board’s response to the crisis. It showed me how communities can come together in the times of greatest stress, a life-affirming message in the wake of a horrible tragedy.


    Honoring the winners of the Magna Awards — the magazine’s biggest event at NSBA’s conference — is one of the favorite parts of my job. The program, sponsored by ASBJ and Sodexo School Services, recognizes school boards and district-level programs that go above and beyond the call to improve student achievement.

    Another highlight is talking to board members from around the country and learning more about their work. Each year, it seems, I meet someone new at the start of the conference and then continue to bump into that person at odd moments throughout the event.

    This year, that person was Joplin board member Randy Steele; by the end of the conference, we had seen each other so often that it had become a running joke.

    Bright Futures, the program Joplin won for, is no joke. The 7,747-student district received the grand prize in the 5,000-to-20,000 enrollment category for a community engagement initiative that has helped reduce its dropout rate by more than 50 percent. Bright Futures also has resulted in the development of more than 230 community partnerships, and brought in more than $300,000 in cash and in-kind donations.

    One unique aspect of the program is its use of social networking — primarily Facebook — in a “rapid response” system designed to meet the basic needs of students within a 24-hour period. The Bright Futures group has 4,800 people who “like” it; the district’s Facebook page has almost 3,000.

    “Whether it is providing comfort to homeless students, eating lunch with children of incarcerated parents, tutoring struggling students, or buying a pair of shoes for a child whose family can’t afford it, every single need is being filled as it is identified,” Superintendent C.J. Huff said in the district’s application.

    The needs are far greater today in Joplin, and in other districts and communities that have been devastated as well. Fortunately, the district has the infrastructure in place — an infrastructure that was being leveraged just hours after the tornado.


    Communication always is a struggle when disaster strikes. Phone lines are jammed or down.  E-mail is non-existent. In the wake of such a devastating event, the greatest struggle can be just locating people amid the rubble.

    We have not spoken to the superintendent, or to Randy Steele. Reaching people in the district via traditional methods has been impossible almost all day.

    Except through Facebook.

    Throughout the day, postings gave the district’s status on the Joplin Schools page. One, noting that the district was “in the process of accounting for the safety of our students, faculty, and staff,” had more than 275 comments in just six hours.

    “I can’t dial out, but I’m safe,” said one.

    “I pray for the safety of the rest,” said another.

    “Thanks for checking on everyone,” a third said.

    As the day progressed, postings were added to the Bright Futures page — requests for clothing, shoes, non-perishable food. A community conversation, in the middle of a town devastated, was starting anew.