Dale Russakoff gained access to some major players — including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — while researching and writing The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?, her new book about the recent attempt at radical education reform in Newark, New Jersey. But it may be her empathetic approach to the stories of those affected by reform — the students, teachers, administrators, and families — that makes the book a potential classic of its genre.
Dale brought decades of solid reporting experience to The Prize. I think you’ll find this interview both inspiring and full of practical tips for your own writing.
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Prize?
Dale: I recently had taken a buyout from The Washington Post after 28 years as a staff writer and was making my way (shakily) as a freelance writer. I had been interested for several years in the rise of what has become known as the education reform movement — that potent combination of billionaire philanthropists, charter school leaders, social entrepreneurs and politicians in both parties who wanted to upend the status quo of traditional public schools governed by large, usually unionized bureaucracies. I also had a lifelong interest in issues of race and inequality from having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama during the final years of legal segregation and the civil rights movement.
When Mark Zuckerberg, at age 26, announced his $100 million gift to the Newark schools, I was electrified to see this very young billionaire sitting beside a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor on the Oprah show, all of them pledging to transform education for some of the nation’s poorest children. I had spent more than a decade in the New York bureau of the Washington Post and I had written frequently about Newark. The city was compelling to me from the beginning. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to cities across America as a result of the collapse of manufacturing, white and middle-class flight to the suburbs, disinvestment. I saw this as an opportunity to learn, in detail, at the ground level, what the education reform movement really meant for schooling in cities like this. I wanted to get as close to the process as I possibly could because this is what had fascinated me in my almost 30 years as a reporter for The Washington Post — tracing the process by which big public policy ideas do or don’t translate into actual changes in people’s lives, and understanding why or why not.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Dale: I began by going to Newark a lot, meeting people who for years had been active in education on various fronts — all stripes of community activists, current and former school board members, clergy, principals, teachers, charter school leaders, the staffs of nonprofits involved in education. But I also sought and ultimately gained access to the people at the very top of the effort — Zuckerberg himself, then-Mayor (of Newark) Cory Booker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his state education commissioner, Chris Cerf, and Newark superintendent Cami Anderson. My goal was to see the effort through the eyes of those crafting and leading it as well as those at the ground level, in the schools and the community, who would experience the changes.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Dale: Initially I created categories as they emerged and filed research related to them in online folders: Education Philanthropy; History of Corruption in the Newark district; Unions; Social Conditions in Newark; History of the Education Reform Movement; Reformers; Anti-Reformers; Common Core.
It soon got wildly out of control, and I sought advice from a good friend from my years at The Post named Rick Atkinson, a prolific and prizewinning book author who is also brilliant at organization. He said his technique was to create separate Word files for each month, and within those, a file for each interview, for notes from that day’s reporting or for any research conducted, with the date in the subject line. So I literally ended up with Word folders for 54 months, and within those, all of the interviews I conducted in those months, all of the notes I took, etc. As I collected documents or reports or made copies of microfiche records from the Newark archives in the public library, I filed them under the day I obtained them. I found that my mind began to remember interviews by the month in which I conducted them. Or I remembered the months of particular events. If I needed a document at the writing stage and I couldn’t remember the month in which I had filed it, I could use the search function and enter a phrase or a key word, which would ultimately lead me to the file I needed.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Dale: Fortunately or unfortunately, I never had a typical day. I spent many, many days in district and charter schools, observing teachers and principals, getting to know students and staff members. I also was allowed to attend many sessions that Cami Anderson, the superintendent, held with her leadership team, and to follow her around at times as she visited schools or met with charter leaders or held training sessions with principals. I often arranged interviews in the afternoon and evenings with parents, teachers, principals, kids. I interviewed executives of the various philanthropies involved in the reform effort — from Mark Zuckerberg’s to those of local Newark philanthropies that contributed some of the matching funds.
And I attended scores of community meetings, rallies, school board meetings, campaign organizing efforts (the reform effort became a huge political issue as time went on). I also attended a lot of events that were not directly related to education but had a bearing on it — such as those in response to the high level of violence in the city. For example, anti-violence rallies were held weekly at the intersection nearest the latest murder, and I went to a number of those and just listened to people talk about how violence was affecting their families and their children.
Once I began writing, I tended to write all day, from morning to night. But I began to feel very isolated from Newark and from the schools. I live only 20 minutes from Newark, so at times I broke away for a visit to a school or an interview in the city, or a school basketball game (see below), just to feel that I remained in touch with the story as it was developing.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Dale: My favorite “tool” is one that I learned at age 25 from my city editor, Bob Johnson, at The Atlanta Journal, the second newspaper I worked for. I was one of a number of young reporters covering the counties that surrounded Atlanta. This was the late 1970s, and these were mostly semi-rural areas that were going suburban very fast. We were filing multiple stories a day from the city halls, the police departments, the zoning boards, all the official places. But Bob told us that we should take at least one afternoon a week to do what he called “missionary work.”
What he meant by this was that we were to put away our notebooks, stop looking for stories for a couple of hours, and go talk to people someplace in our counties that we hadn’t explored, or just check out something that had caught our fancy but that didn’t qualify as “news.” The idea was to experience the county as people who lived there experienced it. This sounded really intriguing to me, and I started doing it, and I immediately began finding some of my best stories this way — when I wasn’t really looking for news, when I had simply followed my instinct to someplace or someone interesting.
I do this now as a matter of course whenever I’m reporting a story, and I did it often over the 4-1/2 years I was researching my book. And again, I found some of the most eye-opening stories in my book this way. I wrote an entire chapter on one kid whose story I learned just by attending the middle school basketball tournament in Newark. I love youth sports — my now-grown sons were both baseball and soccer players and I always was amazed to see what kids do together on teams — so it caught my attention when the basketball team at a K-8 school I was following made it into the city-wide tournament. Everyone at the school, it seemed, caught the excitement, and so I started going to all the games, cheering alongside all the kids, teachers and parents, as I always did at my sons’ games. And this one player was so outstanding that I decided to learn more about him — purely out of curiosity. And his story grew into what may be my favorite chapter in the entire book.
Bonus question: Who do you envision as the perfect audience for The Prize? How did you decide on that audience?
Dale: Teachers — dedicated, committed teachers — were my target audience. Of course I hope that everyone interested in education will read the book and learn from it. But as I reported and wrote The Prize, I was moved most of all by the teachers who give so much of themselves every day to reach students in the face of extraordinary obstacles. I saw so many men and women — some of whom had been teaching for decades — who seemed to have bottomless capacity to teach, inspire, improvise, buck up, whatever it took for that particular child on that particular day. I saw this happening in so-called “failing schools” as well as excellent schools, in both district schools and charter schools. These teachers have the most intimate awareness of the challenges inherent in trying to transform education for America’s poorest children. They know how much is being left out of the very polarized national debate between the reform movement on one side and unions on the other. Every day, they and their students go up against all the forces that brought down Newark and so many of our cities — extreme poverty, violence, family strife. I wanted to write a book that would make them feel that they had been heard.