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WBUR takes home high honor

Series on race and education wins first prize from Education Writers Association

Jany Finkielsztein, left, from the McAuliffe Regional Charter Public School in Framingham talks to parent Truc Mai Luong. Photo by Christine Fichera, WBUR.

Producers and reporters at WBUR, Boston University’s National Public Radio station, turned a lingering question in the newsroom into an award-winning series last year, examining the effects of the academic achievement gap on real teachers and real students in real classrooms.

“The phrase ‘achievement gap’ was continually bandied about,” says executive producer Anna Bensted, “but no one was actually explaining it or how it manifested itself in the classroom.”

So Bensted dispatched a team of reporters to find out why minority students often were less successful in the classroom than white students. The result, the four-part series Reading, Writing, and Race, won first prize for radio documentary reporting in the Education Writers Association’s 2005 National Awards. Click here to listen.

WBUR reporters worked with editor Margaret Evans and engineer George Hicks to create a package consisting of on-site reporting and interviews. The topic was broken down into different perspectives, among them: what the achievement gap means for a teacher in a classroom, what it means to a principal, and what it means to families and communities. Then the team found local resources that would illustrate the consequences.

Part one, reported by Audie Cornish, examined the problem in Boston’s Washington Irving Middle School from the perspective of students and teachers. Reporter Monica Brady-Myerov reported the second part from a Framingham charter school, addressing the many factors outside the school day that influence student performance. The third report looked at successful ways to tackle the achievement gap, with reporter Martha Bebinger visiting the MATCH School in Boston, just blocks away from WBUR. In the final segment Bob Oakes brought to the studio two experts, Boston physics teacher Steven Fernandes and Harvard sociologist John Diamond.

Bensted says it wasn’t easy to pull off the collaborative project in a very busy newsroom, where everyone has daily coverage duties. “It’s a luxury to be able to look at nonbreaking news issues,” she says. “And we wanted to work as a team to give [this issue] more coverage, more depth.”

After the series ran in November 2005, staff began to hear a buzz signaling success. E-mails started coming in. Parents were talking to one another. “We got very good feedback,” says Bensted.

She believes that the success of the piece is largely because of its collaborative nature, and plans to use the same approach in producing WBUR’s next series, Boston at the Crossroads, which will look at how the city is changing in the present and how those changes will affect the city in the future. The series is expected to run in May.