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Tampa Bay Times’ “Failure Factories” series recognized by Columbia Journalism Review

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Tampa Bay Times has been honored as one of the best examples of journalism in 2015 by the Columbia Journalism review. In a breakdown of the good vs. the bad, The Times’ Failure Factories series was recognized as one of nine examples of stand out reporting.

“The Tampa Bay Times’ ongoing series on five underperforming elementary schools tells a story that national media is less likely to cover,” an excerpt from the review reads.

The series chronicles Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose Elementary schools’ chronic student failure rates. All of the schools are in South St. Pete.

The series represents a key issue in St. Pete and shines a light on broader problems facing the mostly poor neighborhoods South of Central. A massive investigation by the Times showed that 8 in 10 at these schools fail reading while a staggering 9 out of 10 fail at math.

Worse, 95 percent of black students at those schools are failing in either reading or math. Statistics from standardized test scores show that Melrose Elementary is the worst elementary school in Florida with Fairmount Park just behind. The other three all fall within the bottom 15 statewide.

The series led to an onslaught of conversations centering not only on improving academic outcomes for children in poor neighborhoods who have few other options than attending one of the five failing schools, but also on improving economic conditions in those areas in general.

The conversations had been ongoing for years, but the Times’ series launched it onto center stage.

“The project, framed with slick visuals and interactive graphics, is stunning in its totality,” the CJR report said. “The work provides yet more proof of the continued value of beat reporting in an era of cutbacks at local news organizations.”

The series went on to expand its investigation into violence in schools, teaching mechanisms and discipline.

The CJR recognition is a huge win for the Times particularly necause of shrinking budgets. The Times has indeed fallen on hard times, but continues to put emphasis on local investigations even as newsrooms shrink.

Not mentioned in CJR’s article is an investigation nearly as telling. This year the Times documented a staggering disparity between biking citations given to white riders verses those who were black. The Biking While Black investigation called into question the Tampa Police Department’s targeted practice of detaining people for minor bicycle violations in poor, mostly black communities.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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