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Applying Lessons From Murder to Education

A Web media entrepreneur looks to extend a strategy refined on Homicide Watch D.C. to a new site offering clarity on school grants, teacher performance, and administration in Boston schools.

Laura Amico, founder of Homicide Watch DC, is CEO of Glass Eye Media. 
National Journal
Laura Amico
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Laura Amico
Jan. 10, 2014, midnight

Laura Amico, who turns 32 Sat­urday, is a Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Santa Cruz) an­thro­po­logy gradu­ate who, after stints as a small-town edu­ca­tion re­port­er and in the Peace Corps, settled in Wash­ing­ton to use the In­ter­net to give voice to vic­tims of vi­ol­ence. Via re­port­ing, on­line data­bases, and com­munity in­volve­ment, Hom­icide Watch DC gained ac­claim. It’s stated mis­sion is, “Mark every death; re­mem­ber every vic­tim; fol­low every case.”

After a Har­vard fel­low­ship in journ­al­ism in­nov­a­tion, Amico and her web-de­veloper hus­band Chris are ex­tend­ing their concept of data-rich ac­count­ab­il­ity journ­al­ism to edu­ca­tion in the Bo­ston area. Al­lied with WBUR, the re­gion’s main Na­tion­al Pub­lic Ra­dio sta­tion, Learn­ing Lab soft-launched last month and pro­duced its first story this week.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

It’s not so much a switch as an ex­pan­sion, be­cause we are run­ning Hom­icide Watch DC and the oth­er Hom­icide Watch sites [so far in Trenton, N.J.; Chica­go; and Col­or­ado]. When I fin­ished the Nei­man Berkman Fel­low­ship, WBUR asked me what I’d like to work on next. That was really fant­ast­ic be­cause as we left D.C. we were un­cer­tain of what came next. To be frank and hon­est, I hadn’t had an ed­it­or say in a long time, “What do you want to work on?” So I cas­u­ally throw out there, “[Cov­er­ing] hom­icide is great, but a lot of people have asked about this [mod­el] and edu­ca­tion.” I had said it cas­u­ally in the con­ver­sa­tion, ex­cept we didn’t move on. It turned out that edu­ca­tion was something WBUR was build­ing com­pet­ency in, and so they asked Chris and I to put to­geth­er a quick pitch be­cause they were ap­ply­ing for a Knight Com­munity [In­form­a­tion Chal­lenge] grant. That was due in three days. So over the week­end we put our heads to­geth­er and I spoke with a lot of people, [ask­ing them] how do you cov­er edu­ca­tion in a mean­ing­ful way and how do you do it in a way that draws from the strengthens in Hom­icide Watch and the prin­ciples of nar­rat­ive data and us­ing that to tell bet­ter stor­ies. The as­sump­tion is that the pivot point, in­stead of be­ing each crime, would be each school.

A school would be the seed around which the in­form­a­tion would re­volve. That alone wouldn’t add much to edu­ca­tion re­port­ing. But when we asked about the big ideas needed, around Bo­ston and Cam­bridge I heard about spe­cial pro­jects and ini­ti­at­ives by phil­an­throp­ists, re­search or­gan­iz­a­tions, and non­profits, and teach­ers and ad­min­is­trat­ors had ques­tions about them. [Like] they didn’t know how long they’d last, their im­pact, who was be­hind them, or why there were be­ing done. So I star­ted hear­ing these ques­tions, I thought about the data struc­ture of Hom­icide Watch. We start with a cent­ral seed and a good ques­tion and grow them in­to a bet­ter one.

We got there in three days, and I was really proud of that. The news­room liked it. We had to write the grant [pro­pos­al]. It was sent to the Bo­ston Found­a­tion as our com­munity part­ner. They ac­cep­ted it from among those they re­ceived, and Knight ac­cep­ted it, so here we are today.

It really is an out­growth and ex­pan­sion of [my early ca­reer]. I star­ted as an edu­ca­tion re­port­er in Cali­for­nia and now I’m at a point, as I look back at that, I think about how little I knew, how dif­fer­ently I’d do it now. What I learned in that first job [cov­er­ing the Pa­jaro Val­ley School Dis­trict in Santa Cruz County] — I was in a fairly rur­al com­munity in [Wat­son­ville] Cali­for­nia with a large mi­grant com­munity [81 per­cent His­pan­ic, ac­cord­ing to 2010 Census fig­ures] — and every­one was talk­ing about schools, their kids, and their pro­jects and school board and what they were go­ing to name the middle school. And that was where we had the vast ma­jor­ity of our con­nec­tion with gov­ern­ment. [Par­ents] wouldn’t go to a city coun­cil meet­ing, but they will go to the school board. Schools are where the ma­jor­ity of fam­il­ies in­ter­act with gov­ern­ment.

Now I’m in a bet­ter po­s­i­tion to bet­ter ask those ques­tions, and they’re very in­ter­est­ing. We spent three or four years in D.C. where there’s a clear con­ver­sa­tion on schools. While I didn’t fol­low them very closely, they helped me un­der­stand how people are try­ing to en­gage with the sys­tem.

[On the new Learn­ing Lab site,] par­ents could likely find a page for their child’s school and see all the [fun­ded] pro­grams in the school that ex­ist — mostly from out­side dis­trict funds; which oth­er schools that pro­gram ex­ists in; find out how much non­profit money is be­ing spent and map that; look at who those donors are and look at pat­terns on how vari­ous in­di­vidu­al donors are spend­ing on schools by pro­gram or loc­a­tion; read back­ground on the spe­cif­ic grant pro­pos­als — the back­ground re­search and any doc­u­ments to col­lect — and then from there share their own ex­per­i­ences. “This is what is hap­pen­ing in my kid’s school, and this is the in­ten­ded res­ult and this is what I see with my kids.” And with teach­ers too. What we’re go­ing to try is to dis­cus the meas­ure of suc­cess — for an in­struct­or, ad­min­is­trat­or or teach­er.

It’s so much fun. I’ve been out of re­port­ing for a year and a half, and it’s such a joy to be back in it. We’re mul­ti­plat­form — ra­dio and Web — and its fun to learn new things.


Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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