Gibbs grad wins journalism award in Wisconsin

Sandra ClarkGibbs/Corryton, Let's Talk

Baylor Spears, a 2022 graduate of Northwestern University in journalism, has won a gold award for investigative reporting from the Milwaukee Press Club. She is a staff reporter for the online newsroom Wisconsin Examiner, a part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

Spears grew up in Knox County and was valedictorian of her graduating class at Gibbs High School. “We are super proud of her hard work,” said her father, James Spears IV. “Tyra and I couldn’t be happier with her situation.” He said Baylor has a great boss who is her mentor. “She is gaining experience and being allowed to do some intense reporting.”

Find her story here.

Over the years, I’ve had a couple hundred summer interns, usually kids between grades 8 and 9. Once I realized none would write an actual article, I stressed getting the money quote – one memorable sentence to sum up the story.

Baylor Spears was an intern for Knox TN Today a few summers back, and I enjoyed working with her. But until I read this story, I had no idea she was such a strong writer. At the heart of her report are the money quotes.

For those without time to read the entire article, let’s highlight it.

Baylor Spears

Spears examined a Milwaukee private school participating in a taxpayer-funded voucher system. What she found should curl the toes of anyone watching the Tennessee legislature and Gov. Bill Lee’s efforts to start a similar system here. She writes:

“State funding for schools in Wisconsin is tied directly to the enrollment count on one specific day. … (The state) does not keep data about transfers back to public school from private voucher schools. But public-school advocates complain that students who are enrolled at private voucher schools for the Third Friday count can be expelled for any reason and returned to public schools after that day, while the money allocated to the private voucher school for their education remains with the private school. …

Spears documented state payments to the HOPE Christian Fortis school at $3.4 million. Under a funding formula, the state aid for K-8 students started at $8,399 per pupil and went to $9,893 per pupil in the 23-24 school year. It will rise to $10,237 in the next school year.

Money quotes

Spears got a former teaching assistant at the school, Cidney Miller, on record saying, “It was always something every day. … There’s a fight here. We have two kids, one of them has a dislocated arm. They’re suspending kids left and right,” Miller said. “It’s because we don’t have any support. There’s no help in the classroom. A teacher can only teach, you can’t teach and discipline and do everything at one time. … Like I said, I’ve worked in a couple of schools and I’ve never been anywhere so chaotic.”

Miller, without a college degree or a teaching license, was hired as a teaching assistant in sixth grade. She was asked to sub in eighth grade and, because of a teacher shortage, was assigned as the classroom teacher.

Kristy (last name redacted), was hired to teach social studies and science in 7th and 8th grades. Understaffing was overwhelming. She told Spears: “When teachers didn’t know where students were supposed to go or needed a break from their students, they would leave them unsupervised in the gym.”

In September, two months into the school year, a boy in second grade suffered a concussion in the gym and was taken to intensive care at Milwaukee Children’s Hospital. A corporate spokesperson wrote a letter to parents saying the principal was no longer employed by the school.

Trina Lockhart, the principal of two campuses for three months, said she was made the “scapegoat.”

She told Spears about the lack of oversight of schools like HOPE Christian, especially when it comes to treatment of staff.

“When I left Milwaukee Public Schools in 2014, I secured a position with another … charter school and it was the same types of things – under-qualified people being promoted, TAs being in classrooms without licensing and not being paid for it, the treatment of the teachers,” Lockhart said.

“All it did was make me think about the rights and the treatments that I had in [MPS]. There were certain guidelines that had to be followed … but with the charter and choice schools, you know, they take the at-will employment to an entirely different level. …

“If you knew there was a teacher shortage, you shouldn’t have waited until July 27 to start looking for teachers that you are going to put in a role and train by August 14. Why would you wait until I came on board to start doing any interviewing?” Lockhart said in an interview with Wisconsin Examiner.”

Lockhart worked hard to find and hire teachers, while memos from corporate urged her and other principals to sign up more students by the Third Friday. Read the full story if you have time. It’s a predictable but still scary look at what can happen here.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.


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