Philadelphia School Notebook Celebrates 20 Years

By Mark Walsh — June 10, 2014 5 min read
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Twenty years ago this month, a new superintendent was named to run the Philadelphia public schools. David W. Hornbeck, then a prominent national education consultant who had been a Maryland state schools superintendent, set an ambitious course to turn the long-troubled school district “on its head.”

That same June in 1994, the city’s two daily newspapers and other news outlets gained a scrappy new competitor—The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

The Notebook, as it is known, was at first only a print publication, meant to serve a grassroots audience for the then-204,000-student district.

Twenty years later, the Philadelphia schools have seen five superintendents, including such national names as Paul G. Vallas and Arlene Ackerman; a host of reforms, including turning some schools over to private managers; a “friendly takeover” by the city and the state of Pennsylvania; and rounds of wrenching budget cuts.

The Notebook, meanwhile, has a vibrant Web presence in addition to publishing 60,000 copies six times a year. It has made splashes for such coverage as reporting on an aggressive zero-tolerance policy that resulted in 33 kindergartners being suspended in the first 10 weeks of the school year in 2002; for reporting on the behind-closed-doors dealings by school district officials to award a charter school management contract to a politically connected company; and for reporting beginning in 2011 on a forensic analysis of test scores on a state exam that revealed suspicious patterns of erasures.

That last story was done in conjunction with WHYY/NewsWorks, the public radio station in Philadelphia, and the continued coverage won a national reporting award from the Education Writers Association.

Paul Socolar, the editor and publisher of The Notebook, said in an interview that the Philadelphia district is as “troubled a school system as it was 20 years ago. But the public is not taking it lying down.”

“There are places around the country where the schools are similarly troubled, and you don’t have nearly the level of ferment or energy about how are we going to change things,” he added.

There is a growing number of cities with Web-based niche news organization focused on particular state or local school systems. These include the Chalkbeat sites in New York City, Indianapolis, Memphis, Tenn., and Denver; as well as EdSource Today in Oakland, Calif.; and the LA School Report, in Los Angeles.

Only The Notebook and Catalyst Chicago maintain print publications, Socolar said. The Notebook, which has a total staff of seven (including three business people) plus freelancers, has partnered with Chalkbeat’s precursor Web sites in the past and held discussions about becoming part of its network, but nothing has come of it for now, he said.

While The Notebook‘s Web site is updated daily and is what is read by those outside Philadelphia, the print edition still has its place, bringing in a significant chunk of advertising revenue.

“Our audience is still attached to the print edition, we’ve been doing it for so long,” Socolar said. “A lot of our parent audience doesn’t necessarily have ready access to the Web.”

The Notebook has received a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to study its parent audience, Socolar said. Parents have been underrepresented in engagement with the Web site.

Tough Competition

The Notebook competes with two major metropolitan newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and its tabloid sibling, the Philadelphia Daily News. The papers, like those in other cities, have faced a decline in advertising as well as a uniquely onerous series of ownership changes and squabbles. Still, they cover the city school system aggressively, and the Inquirer won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for public service, the top award, for a series about violence in Philadelphia’s schools.

The turmoil at the city’s metropolitan newspapers benefited The Notebook in a key way. In 2006, Dale Mezzacappa, the Inquirer‘s longtime Philadelphia public schools beat reporter, took a buyout from the newspaper. Mezzacappa was featured in a 1994 Education Week story about newspaper coverage of journalism as the quintessential reporter dedicated to the education beat.

The buyout did not change that for her. Mezzacappa soon started freelance writing, including for The Notebook. In 2008, she joined the staff of the education newspaper on a four-day-a-week basis. Besides continuing to cover the city’s schools, she has done some editing and serves as a mentor to the staff.

“One of the things about working for a small non-profit is that you do more than just reporting, and some stuff has been a little bit out of my wheelhouse,” she said in an interview. “But I like the mentoring of younger reporters.”

The headline on Mezzacappa’s lead story in The Notebook‘s 20th anniversary edition sums up her perspective: “Much reform, little progress: Interviews with school system veterans find that few are upbeat about improvement.”

“In general, in education, it’s really hard to change,” Mezzacappa said in the interview. “Most big cities are at the mercy of their states and don’t have enough resources. It’s just the way things are done. Pennsylvania is one of the worst. We keep pointing it out and pointing it out. Its harder to outrage the public anymore.”

Dog Bites Spokesman

Fernando Gallard, the communications director of the Philadelphia school district, joined the system when Paul Vallas became superintendent in 2002, so he has seen a lot of coverage as he has served various superintendents since then.

“You have your watchdogs, and then you have your junkyard dog, which is what I consider The Notebook,” Gallard said in an interview. “They are a scrappy, relentlessly focused media outlet that when they grab a hold of your pant leg, they won’t let go.”

“They are a group of very dedicated individuals that are relentless in following through,” added Gallard, who didn’t seem to be just piling on some anniversary compliments. He quickly noted that his office and The Notebook clash regularly on stories and the the paper’s staff makes a lot of informational demands on his office.

During one budget crisis, Gallard said, The Notebook “had a headline that was ‘Countdown to Armageddon’ or something like that. I was like, really? That’s not serving public education.”

Gallard mentioned that virtually every Friday, he gets a call from Mezzacappa asking what may be coming up.

“She says, ‘You know I’m supposed to be off right now,’” he said. “She calls me anyway.”

The Notebook has its 20th anniversary celebration Tuesday at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, as part of an event it holds annually to commend high school journalists.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.