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What I learned while reporting on special education and Latinos in San Benito County

What I learned while reporting on special education and Latinos in San Benito County

Picture of Noe Magana
Backpack on sidewalk
(Photo by Noe Magaña)

Before I began my fellowship project, I knew nothing about special education. In fact, when I heard the term “special education,” I thought of students who suffered from learning disabilities and were always kept together in a group.

I also knew little about mental health. My only information was from various psychology classes I took in college, so finding the link between special education and mental health was going to be a challenge.

I set out to answer three questions for my 2020 California Fellowship project:

  • Are Latinos being disproportionately pushed into special education through suspensions?

  • Does a dysfunctional special education department play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline?

  • What are local school districts doing to address students’ social and emotional needs?

In my series on special education (stories one, two, and three) I analyze how local districts in San Benito County, California are working to fix their special education departments, and how addressing social-emotional needs is viewed as the primary step in reducing school suspensions, thus helping to break the school-to-prison pipeline. 

As this essay is meant to be a source of help for future fellows, I’d like to point out a few mistakes I made first and what I would do differently now.

  1. Use time efficiently. As one who had no experience in in-depth education reporting, I felt I needed to know special education law well enough to ask the right questions. To me, this was also important as I didn’t want to be perceived as unprepared by sources or school administrators. I spent hours steeped in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) looking at students’ rights and schools’ responsibilities.

Advice: While it’s important to be prepared, the amount of hours I spent researching would have been better spent simply asking a professional, “What do I need to know about special education?” In my case, I asked a lawyer, an advocate, and a teacher. Keep in mind, people who are experts in their particular field don’t expect you to be an expert yourself. The answers to my general questions raised many more questions. I got more information and a better understanding speaking with experts for 20 minutes than I did spending hours reading through the IDEA. Speak to experts first, then fill in the holes with additional research. 

  1. Focus the data. I got lost in the numbers. If your project is data heavy, such as mine was, you’ll come across what might seem like an infinite number of statistics within various categories. As a visual learner, my first attempt to analyze the data was printing out several pages of information. This initially helped me understand trends, but I felt I was seeing only part of the puzzle. I then decided to put all the numbers in one spreadsheet, believing this would keep me from going back and forth between district profiles to look up data. Though it was very detailed and color-coded, I never used the spreadsheet. 

Advice: You won’t use all the data you come across. Simplify it and focus on the points you are making. I ended up not using more than half of the data I gathered. As one of my editors rightfully reminded me, don’t tell the story by presenting numbers; tell the story and use the numbers to support your claims. My main source of information was the California Department of Education’s DataQuest, complemented with other data from public records requests. As I became more familiar with DataQuest, it allowed me to view the data to compare years, districts, demographics, and so forth. 

Not every aspect of my approach was ill-conceived, however. Here is what I did right:

  1. Start immediately. Following the conclusion of the four-day Fellowship training sessions, I created a list of possible expert sources and school administrators. I put out calls explaining my project and how they could help. One of my editors was instrumental in providing contacts that helped me — whether on the record or on background — to break down the issues facing students and their families. Having a head start and connecting with people in the education field ultimately helped me find sources willing to speak on the record. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, it took a lot longer than I expected to develop trust with affected families. I think publishing the first article in the series helped more people open up.

  2. Keep sources updated. This is important because it enables sources to feel part of the process. For example, I built a relationship with Shawna Padilla, whose two sons were featured in my series, in which she felt comfortable calling me with any new information she had forgotten to mention. When I told her I was thinking of titling the third article “Falling Through the Cracks,” her eyes widened and said that was exactly what had happened to her eldest son. 

  3. Have an open mind. Stories will not always take the shape you imagine. I looked for examples of students pushed into special education because they exhibited behavioral issues. I found a family who had been denied special education services for seven years. While this did not support my original premise that school districts were pushing students with behavioral issues into special education, it did support the core issue: school districts not properly assessing students when deciding whether to provide special education services. When you embark on a project, approach it as if you are trying to test your hypothesis rather than prove it right.

  4. Stay organized. While organization is not my forte, I made it a point to keep all my notes together. I dedicated a notebook specifically for this project to contain all my handwritten notes. I also did the same for my digital information by creating folders in my email and desktop. So when I needed to review information, I knew exactly where to look and did not have to spend hours digging through my other notebooks designated for general assignments. To me, this was a big accomplishment, especially when dealing with a months-long project.

While this project was intended to have a significant impact on the how local school districts operate and to keep them accountable, it has already impacted how BenitoLink is viewed by our readers. Shortly after publishing the last of the three articles, BenitoLink staff received several envelopes with tips regarding other issues within the local school districts. It shows that readers view BenitoLink as capable of producing in-depth articles shining a light on hidden issues impacting our community. 

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