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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. 
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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.

‘MY VIEW’ OF THE NEXT AMER­ICA

Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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