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  • 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.

  • '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

  • The Melt's Glacial Pace

    OK, kids, in case you wonder why school is still not in session three days after a record snowfall, here is a visual example taken from the confines of our house.

    • Exhibit A (Top Left): Our mailbox.

    • Exhibit B (Bottom Left): Our driveway earlier tonight.

    • Exhibit C (Right): The pace of the melt.

    Actually, it could be much worse for us. And it is in other areas, as a number of neighborhoods in Northern Virginia are still not completely plowed. Sidewalks apparently will be a figment of the imagination until spring, and multiple lane roads are still facing the abrupt 3-2-1 shifts that make commuter traffic — already a ginormous hassle here — a recurring nightmare.

    So the federal government is operating on a three-hour delay in the hopes that we can stuff the snow somewhere, and students everywhere are checking Twitter to see when the next cancellation will occur.

    Keep checking the feeds, kids. Keep checking the feeds.

  • 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.

  • Looking Back

    From 1996 to 2001, I was the public information officer/communications director for Rockingham County Schools, a 15,000-student district in North Carolina. After a 13-year career in newspapers (nine years as a reporter/desk editor and four as a managing editor), moving into communications was a huge step, but it could not have come at a better time.

    I started the job in October, having married Jill earlier in the year. The next month, we moved into our first house together. A month after that, Katharine was born, followed by Ben and Emma less than a year later.

    The new job provided a fantastic opportunity to witness the inner workings of a school district, one that had merged from four separate and distinct systems three years earlier. I was a one-person shop, handling media calls, writing press releases, and putting my design and photography skills to work.

    I always had taken pictures (usually of my family and occasionally for news stories), but it was during this period that I started carrying a camera with me everywhere. Capturing candid moments in the life of the school district taught me more than anything about the work of educators, the joys and frustrations of being a kid, and the challenges we all face in daily life.

    The sheer repetition of taking hundreds of photos a year helped improve my eye for composition as well as my technique in what proved to be the last gasp for film cameras. All of the pictures taken here, along with those in the accompanying Facebook album, were taken to a local processor, developed and printed, then scanned onto my Mac for later use.

    When I left the district, the hallways of the central office were decorated with my photographs, and there they remained for another two years before being taken down. I was fortunate that I was allowed to keep the negatives and the images that had been painstakingly scanned.

    Recently, going through my portfolio, I saw this collection of images and decided to post a Facebook album that looks back fondly at this period in our family's life and in my career.

    Today, the kids in these pictures are now in their 20s and 30s, and many probably have children of their own. But these images serve as a reminder that, while well-chosen words tell a story, pictures take you back to moments in time in ways that words never can.

  • Daily Photo: November 8, 2013

    Double exposure from the days of film: One student studies; another waits for the bus on the first day of school — Rockingham County, N.C., August 2000

  • No Reason Why

    In November, Ben decided to read Dave Cullen’s Columbine, a nonfiction account of the 1999 school shooting that left 15 people dead and shook the world.

    He had just finished the book when the shootings in Newtown, Conn., occurred. Minutes after it was first reported, I received a text from him.

    “Did you hear? Can you believe it? ... Why?”

    More than a month has passed, and it’s still unbelievable—the shooting that led to the deaths of 20 elementary school children, six adults at the school, the gunman’s mother at home, and the gunman himself. It affected us so profoundly that our president was left teary-eyed, that donations were so overwhelming that townspeople had to ask us to stop sending them.

    On Dec. 14, I was in Austin, preparing for my extended Texas family to come and see my son perform in a show the following evening. The next morning, my cousin was coming to meet us when he was killed in a head-on collision.

    Over two days the next week, as my mom and I drove out to his small West Texas town for the funeral, I thought about my son’s question and then back to my magazine’s 10th anniversary coverage of the Columbine tragedy.

    The events that led to the Newtown and Columbine shootings could not be less similar, but both cases resulted in a tragic and senseless loss of life. Both continue to raise vexing questions about our society—some involving schools, others not.

    Interestingly, in the small town of Albany, Texas (population: 2,034), the person who officiated at my cousin’s funeral also brought up the tragedy that had occurred thousands of miles away. He pointed to the people in attendance—a great percentage of them gun owners—and told them it was OK to cry, and to ask why these events occurred within 24 hours of each other.

    He said this knowing no clear cut answers exist. Sometimes, he noted, there’s no logical reason why.

  • Joplin's 'Amazing' Year

    Note: This is an edited version of the web-only essay that was published to promote the Joplin Schools story I wrote for American School Board Journal

    You never know who you’re going to bump into at a conference. But after a couple of days, I usually have a pretty good idea.

    Each year, I meet a board member or superintendent early on, either on the shuttle bus or in line at the hotel. And over the course of the next several days, I seem to see that person everywhere.

    Last year, that person was Randy Steele.

    Randy is a school board member in Joplin, Mo., and justifiably, he was proud of the Magna Award grand prize that his district was receiving for a program called “Bright Futures.” Over the course of the three-day meeting, I saw him everywhere—in the hallway, in sessions, at the Magna luncheon. By the end of the week, it had become something of a running joke.

    What happened in Joplin just six weeks later was no joke.

    An EF-5 tornado cut a three-quarter mile path through the middle of this Missouri community, ultimately claiming 161 lives, causing $3 billion in damage, and destroying several of Joplin’s school buildings. Immediately, the American School Board Journal staff reached out via Facebook to Steele and Superintendent C.J. Huff, asking if there was anything we could do.

    This feature story is the result. 

    Over the course of a year, I followed a remarkable tale of resilience and recovery, of looking ahead when it is more tempting to look back. It’s a fascinating study of how tireless leaders — board members and administrators — turn crisis into opportunity as they work to protect students and staff and prevent them from having a lost year.


    The first section of this essay was taken from my editor’s note that appeared in the May 2012 issue of the magazine. We wrapped up the print edition in late March and by the time it appeared, there were a number of things to update:

    • Just after the issue went to press, voters narrowly passed a $62 million bond issue that will help in the district’s rebuilding effort. Joplin High School is the centerpiece of that effort; all of the pictures in the print edition are from the devastated building that is still being razed. (You also can find more pictures from the high school and the Joplin community that I took last year here.)

    • A week after the construction referendum, former board chair Ashley Micklethwaite announced that she has accepted a job with Mercy Health Center in St. Louis and will leave Joplin later this year.

    • The district has started working on plans for President Obama’s commencement speech on May 21 — the day before the first anniversary. The next day, ceremonial groundbreaking ceremonies will be held for the new schools.

    C.J. Huff, who has done yeoman’s work in leading the district’s recovery efforts, told the Joplin Globe that he and other administrators know that May 22 will be a tough and emotional day for the community’s residents.

    “Everybody is in a different place,” Huff said. “Those days will bring a lot of celebration and a lot of reflection. As we reflect on the past, we have to think about the future. It’s just another step in the healing process.”

    The year has not been without its glitches. In fact, Joplin is facing a lawsuit from the out-of-state contractor hired to demolish the high school. People who remain unsettled by the storm were upset that their taxes would go up and voted against the referendum, which passed by a 57-43 margin.

    But none of that should put a damper on the remarkable story of Joplin’s school leaders.

    Just before the issue went to press, I asked Randy if I would see him at this year’s conference. The new board president said he wasn’t sure, and ultimately he did not go. The reason: The meeting conflicted with Joplin’s prom.

    In Boston for the meeting, I got onto a packed shuttle and headed toward the back. This time, I bumped into Mickelthwaite. She had been remarkably candid in our talks last November and again in March, talking about the loss of her home, the struggles of her community, the changes in her job — Joplin’s Mercy Hospital was destroyed in the storm — and the hard work going on in the district.

    As we rode toward the convention center, she told me about her decision to resign from the board and leave her hometown (“It’s tough, but it’s time,” she said). She also talked of the resilience — and the grind — that everyone continues to face.

    “It’s been an amazing year,” she said.

    Indeed it has.

    To read the story, go to this site's Magazine Features section or click on "Restoring the Future." To read my earlier essay, written right after the Joplin tornado, click here