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A veteran journalist learns the value of having a Plan B

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

A veteran journalist learns the value of having a Plan B

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A teacher leads students through an activity at Freedom Elementary School in Buckeye, Arizona in 2021.
A teacher leads students through an activity at Freedom Elementary School in Buckeye, Arizona in 2021.
(Monica D. Spencer/The Republic)

I’ve been writing about immigrants, Latinos and marginalized communities for more than 35 years, 22 of those at The Arizona Republic, where I currently write about race, equity and opportunity.

I’m proud of the broad network of sources I’ve built and the access I’ve gained within marginalized communities, which often hold a deep and warranted mistrust of the media. I can’t recall a single instance when I have been unable to find the right person, or persons, willing to let me weave their personal story into a compelling narrative to illustrate an important topic. It took me months of reporting, including numerous — at times dangerous — trips to the U.S.-Mexico border to find a man who smuggles human beings into the U.S. He agreed to be interviewed. On camera, no less.

The smuggler’s detailed explanation of his work and motivation was a key piece of The Wall, our Pulitzer Prize-winning multi-media project exploring the untold stories and hidden consequences of Trump’s border wall.

I did not expect to have problems finding the right people for my project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship, examining the pandemic’s impact on Latino learners. 

Latino students make up nearly 50% of Arizona’s K-12 population, and therefore a critical part of the state’s future workforce. Yet they lag behind white students academically due to long-standing inequities, policies and laws denying equal access to quality education for all students.

I proposed three stories. The first focused on students classified as English language learners, who scored the lowest by far on standardized tests during the pandemic. 

The second story focused on Latino college students. Data showed that the college plans of Latino students in Arizona were disproportionately disrupted during the pandemic.

The third story centered on a sudden drop in enrollment at the start of the pandemic, followed by sharp increases in chronic absentee rates that disproportionately impacted Latino students.

Although I knew it would not be easy to find people to illustrate the stories, at the outset I felt confident.

But finding the right people for all three stories simultaneously and under a deadline proved to be more challenging than I had imagined. In the end, I was able to find students for only two of the stories.

I started by casting a wide net. I emailed and called several advocacy groups that work closely with Latino students. One group, ALL in Education, gave me the names and phone numbers of several parents who had participated in a new program that trains them to help their students achieve academic success. I called every one of them. Some gave me the names of other parents. Eventually, I found a mom from Mexico who was willing to allow me to come to her house to interview her and her daughter. 

They lived in a trailer home in a predominantly Latino neighborhood on the south side of Phoenix. I visited several times, gaining more details about the girl’s struggles to learn via Zoom during the pandemic and the Spanish-speaking mother’s struggles to communicate with teachers. At one point, the mother even dug up the girl’s standardized test scores showing she was behind in math and English. She even allowed me to take pictures with my cell phone so I could describe the scores accurately.

Finding a Latino student who had decided not to enroll in college due to the pandemic was a bigger challenge. It’s always harder to find someone who hasn’t done something than someone who has. I contacted several schools with high numbers of Latino students. But schools are reluctant to give reporters the names of students for privacy reasons. I also contacted several advocacy groups that work with students, but had no luck.

Finally, I learned that a nonprofit in Phoenix had started a program providing scholarships to Latino students whose college plans had been derailed by the pandemic, as an incentive to get them back on track. The organization connected me with a student who had enrolled at Arizona State University after graduating from high school, the first person in his family to attend college But just weeks before classes started, he decided to withdraw. After losing his minimum wage job due to the pandemic, he could not afford tuition.

For my third story about enrollment decreases, I wanted to find a Latino student who had stopped attending school due to the pandemic. But my leads ran dry. 

I reached out to all the previous sources and when those failed I reached out to more. Several school districts agreed to help but told me none of the parents they talked to wanted to be interviewed. 

My editors suggested we hold the third installment until I found a subject. My senior fellow, MaryJo Webster, concurred even though it meant publishing the third story past the March deadline. I continued my search.

One day MaryJo asked me: Do you have a Plan B?

In all honesty, I was so fixated on finding a Latino student it hadn’t dawned on me that there might be another way to tell the story. But her question got me thinking. And then it hit me: I could tell the story through the principal of a school that had experienced a drop in enrollment and then increases in chronic absenteeism. 

That became my Plan B. 

The principal I found could not have been more perfect. The son of Mexican immigrants, he had become the principal of the same neighborhood elementary school he had attended. The suburban school served a neighborhood that had become predominantly working class Latino families, mirroring demographic changes in neighborhoods throughout the Phoenix area. The principal connected with the challenges his students have faced during the pandemic. He described their struggles with empathy and compassion informed by his lived experiences.

We published the third story in April. It was a few weeks after the March deadline. But the switch to Plan B was worth the extra time and the effort.


The nation's top infectious disease specialist will join us for a conversation with national health reporter Dan Diamond of The Washington Post. We’ll talk about the evolving threat posed by monkeypox, the current state of the COVID pandemic, and broader lessons on how we respond to emerging diseases. Sign-up here!

The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


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