/Aallyah Wright How I reported the School Recognition Program story

Aallyah Wright How I reported the School Recognition Program story

Nonprofit Mississippi News I started a reporting project in January 2018 on the critical teacher shortages in Mississippi. This was with Kelsey Betz, my colleague. In the middle of that series, I came across the School Recognition Program. It was designed to reward teachers who improve their letter grades or maintain their A- or B ratings. I hadn’t seen much reporting on it. I was interested in seeing how much money was distributed to each school district annually and which teachers were eligible for the funds. I did my research on the program. The main question that I was trying to answer was “Does this program continue giving money to already wealthy schools and not compensating the hardworking teachers who work in struggling areas?” I discovered that 53% of funds went to districts with at least half of the student population being white. It was also difficult to track how the money was distributed to teachers. It was not possible to determine how many teachers were eligible for the one-time supplement.
Why? Why? Districts had problems as a result. The Legislature amended the guidelines to ensure that all staff were eligible for the same amount. We found that only 60% of districts have given teachers the same amount since the program was implemented. How did I find this? I was concerned about teachers fighting over the money. I sent out a social media appeal to all educators in the state for help. I asked for all the data that the Mississippi Department of Education had. After speaking with teachers about their confusion and lack of clarity on the program, I was expecting a quick data analysis, but it turned out to be complicated and time-consuming. To see the amount of money received by each district, I needed data from the three previous fiscal years. This data includes the name of the district and each school within the district as well as the amount, letter grade improvement and average daily attendance. To see the information that schools submitted to the state, I requested 600 pages of responses from each district. Different districts submitted their responses in different ways. It was difficult to compile a spreadsheet because everyone had different reports. Some districts didn’t submit the forms, while others did not provide certain information such as the number eligible teachers to be awarded. To build our own database, I asked Alex Rozier and Kayleigh Skinner to assist me in manually entering data from the responses. We finally had a place where we could look at how much each district received in each year. This required a lot of time to verify the data so I decided to take a break from it and focus on other reporting projects. At the beginning of the year, I spoke with education advocates and interviewed the MDE regarding the data. This story was put on hold when the pandemic struck because it wasn’t as urgent a news priority given the changes in the world this spring. The Governor of Georgia, however, made a statement last month. Tate Reeves raised concerns about social media regarding the lack of funding for the School Recognition Program by the Legislature. It was time for me to share the reporting that I have been doing for over a year, while also addressing claims by the governor that schools are improving because of the School Recognition Program.