“I think one of the lessons in this project is that often the best stories are the stories you try to attack again and again and again in your career and that to put it bluntly, really haunt you,” said Gary Marx, investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “And this was one of them.”
Marx joined forces with David Jackson, watchdog reporter, and Alex Richards, special reporter, to produce "An Empty-Desk Epidemic," a series that uncovered startling statistics on truancy rates in the Chicago public schools, and a cash-strapped school system that has done little to solve the problem. The investigation found that one out of every eight elementary students in Chicago public schools missed four weeks of school or more in the 2010-2011 school year.
After some initial digging, Jackson and Marx found that they had stumbled upon a huge issue where patterns of missing school are starting as young as kindergarten. Jackson says this disconnection from school quickly becomes routine, and these kids quickly become statistics in the dropout crisis.
“We wanted to issue a wake-up call,” said Jackson. “We really think that this is where government can intervene and do the most good.”
The team worked on this project for about six months, where they struggled to get internal attendance data from the Chicago public school district. For the first time, they were able to calculate missed school days in three important categories: truancy, excused absences, and gaps in enrollment.
Meanwhile, they took to the streets, talking with families who don’t make school a priority.
“You go and talk to these families who have issues of why they may not want to talk to you. Obviously there’s shame involved at all levels of their lives and we’re going to them to talk to them because of something that’s wrong. Their kids aren’t going to school,” said Jackson. “And yet again and again these families said I’ll open my door to you, I’ll open my life to you, I’ll open my heart to you because I want this story told and I think it would help other people.”
Jackson and Marx have high hopes for their series. They say truancy patterns at an elementary level have been relatively untouched by journalists, and they’re hoping their series will bring awareness to this issue.
“I think that whenever you do a big project like this you ask yourself at the outset, why is journalism necessary here?” said Jackson. “And in this case, I think only journalism could have moved the dial on this issue and could have gotten people aware and talking about it because this is really a hidden problem.”
Lyndsey Wallen is a JCCF intern.
Get the JCCF News Summary by email: