Stories from the virtual schoolhouse

On March 11, 2020, my living room turned into a newsroom of one. School board meetings moved online. Phone calls and emails replaced visits with sources and fellow reporters.

As I thought about how to cover schools during a pandemic, I took a particular interest in showing how students, parents and teachers have adapted. Here are a few of those stories:

‘Bitmoji whisperer’: Metro Atlanta teachers recreate classrooms online

Many of Tiffany Lester’s students at DeKalb PATH Academy will meet their science teacher when school starts online Monday.

They won’t spot her purple hair from down the hallway. Her therapy dog, Gary Fishlegs, won’t wander around the classroom like he usually does, seeking out the kids having a bad day so he can offer furry comfort from a cozy couch.

Instead, Lester and her fifth graders will be separated by computer screens.

That’s why she built a virtual classroom.

Lester is one of a host of teachers to create elaborate and interactive online classrooms complete with desks, book shelves and personalized avatars. (The cartoon version of Lester also sports purple hair. Gary gets his own room.)
Read more here.

Atlanta teachers improvise to take gym class virtual

In her Marietta garage with a green backdrop and a tripod, Jen Hagerty records the exercises she shares with her students during virtual physical education classes.

In his family’s Atlanta basement, fifth-grader Oli Hoelker watches online while playing the new games created by Hagerty, his Springdale Park Elementary School teacher.

Atlanta school buildings closed in March amid the coronavirus pandemic. So did their gymnasiums. Physical education classes, just like math and reading, moved to living rooms and laundry rooms, bedrooms and backyards.

For Oli, and his twin siblings Elsie and Henry in second grade, it’s one of the best parts of the at-home school day.

Read more here.

Prom loss breaks seniors’ hearts, some metro Atlanta businesses’ bank accounts

It’s one of the surest signs of spring in the South, right up there with blooming azaleas and the first clicks of the air conditioner.

Prom season, that sentimental high school sendoff, sweeps across metro Atlanta, leaving a trail of sequins and cherished (or cringeworthy) memories and boosting the bank accounts of dressmakers, florists, photographers, hair stylists and chauffeurs.

But in the age of the coronavirus, dance floors are deserted, limos are empty and gowns hang unworn in girls’ closets.

Instagram, usually jammed with posts of couples posing in scenic spots, is full of tributes to an abridged senior year cut short before the glitzy exclamation mark, the rite of passage that, cliched or not, ends every high school movie.

For the class of 2020, and the massive prom industry that makes money off those priceless moments, it’s a devastating loss.

Read more here.

Metro Atlanta high school theater programs improvise during pandemic

Cory Kelley came to Cambridge High School this fall as the new theater director, intent on growing the program and creating memorable shows.

But because of the pandemic, high school theater troupes across metro Atlanta must find new ways to give students a chance to perform.

“This is what they do, and they haven’t been able to do it for months,” the Fulton County teacher said.

They’re staging shows online and outside, in masks and face shields, with smaller casts and bigger precautions. They’re building extra time into rehearsals in case schools shut down and watching budgets carefully.

Read more here.

Metro Atlanta students capture pandemic life in yearbooks

The yearbook staff at Milton High School already faced a monumental undertaking to document their school’s 100th anniversary.

Each year, students create a thick, photo-filled keepsake, and the centennial added historical heft to the task.

When the coronavirus hit, the job became tougher and the stakes got higher.

“In my opinion, this is our most important book we’ve ever made,” said Ben Williams, a senior and the yearbook’s head editor.

He and other staffers want to show what the 2020-2021 school year looked like, through the lens of a pandemic. Here’s the struggle: Much of it isn’t happening at school.

Read more here.

Atlanta parents turn to pandemic pods to help with at-home learning

The thump of a basketball echoed from an Atlanta backyard where four classmates had just enough time before their next online lesson to shoot some hoops.

It was late morning during David T. Howard Middle School’s first week of virtual learning. Ashli Colbert watched the group of eighth grade boys from the kitchen door and kept her eye on the clock. She needed to make sure all four students she’s paid to supervise were logged in on time so they wouldn’t be marked absent.

“All right guys, time’s up,” she shouted. The boys settled around a big wooden table, staring at their laptops, listening to their teachers.

Welcome to the 2020 schoolhouse, emphasis on house.

As hundreds of thousands of metro Atlanta students return to online school amid the coronavirus pandemic, families are forming small learning pods and hiring private tutors and teachers to help out at home.

Read more here.

Most memorable stories of 2017

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As a busy year draws to a close, I wanted to put a list together of some of my best or more interesting work this year. Stories I covered in 2017 took me to Atlanta for the Toledo Blade and then — in a twist — I moved from Toledo to Atlanta.

Sometimes I get bogged down in the day-to-day grind of journalism: The frustration of waiting for public records, trying to get sources to return calls, keeping up with the news as it happens, and — more recently — learning a new beat, developing new sources, and navigating my way around a new city.

It’s easy to forget how lucky I am to be able to tell stories for a living. As I look at this list, I remember all the people who let me into their homes, who let me ask them questions as they cried while watching their home burn, who just picked up the phone when I called.

Here are some of my most memorable stories of the year from both The Blade and The AJC:


Gail Rayford stands in front of her family’s Mississippi church.


I spent the better part of two days searching for a high school photo from George Armstrong’s class in Alabama and ended up learning a lot about the Rosenwald schools in the process.


  • ATLANTA — Younger, educated blacks whose parents and grandparents migrated north are reversing that well-traveled route and moving south. They come for opportunity and stay for familiarity. It’s often a job that draws Rust Belt expats to southern boomtowns. But the diversity, culture, and family ties soon make their new city feel like home. Ohio posted net-migration losses among both college-educated blacks and whites from 2010 to 2014, but the African-American population fell at a greater rate.
  • Kristin Schnerer calls herself a “news junkie.” The Start High School social studies teacher engages her classes in discussions about current events, and fact-checks students when they spout false stories spread on Facebook. The task of sifting through what is true and what is not, what is opinion or fact, what is journalism or advertising has gotten trickier as sources of online information proliferate and the heat of political rhetoric rises. Miss Schnerer has a timely and practical solution: Teach students how to analyze the news. The Toledo Board of Education recently approved a course she will pilot next school year that aims to do exactly this. Media and Politics — a half-credit elective course for juniors and seniors — is like no other class at Toledo Public Schools.

Baby jamie smith jane doe

An old Polaroid kept in a box of mementos shows Jamie Smith, or Baby Girl Doe, or “Lisa,”  a few days after she was born and left in a car in Ohio.

van wert

Betsy DeVos kneels down to speak to a child in a Van Wert classroom

  • VAN WERT, Ohio — Barely a hint of the biting rhetoric that has dogged U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from teachers unions and other public school advocates surfaced today as she toured Van Wert City Schools alongside an ardent critic. President Trump’s cabinet pick, controversial among many public school educators for her charter school advocacy, spent several amicable hours in this rural northwest Ohio district with Randi Weingarten, leader of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers.


  •  A jewel of Toledo’s resurgent UpTown neighborhood caught fire Tuesday, forcing residents of the 18-unit apartment building onto the street where they watched in disbelief as the 1897 structure burned. Michael McCarthy, 35, answered his husband’s phone call and tried to explain the magnitude of the flames that devoured the roof of the old rental complex at 321 16th St., where he has lived for seven years. “It’s all gone, OK?” he said. “It’s over.”


  • Tamar Quincey spent years lying about who she is. The 26-year-old grew up surrounded by devout Christians, who taught her traditional views of sexuality and gender. She told people she felt “called to celibacy,” or that she was waiting for God to send her someone to marry. Then she told the truth. Quincey first came out as gay in 2016. About a year later, she began transitioning from male to female after enrolling at the all-male Morehouse College.


Roberto Hernandez’s mural on Buford Highway in Atlanta. 

  • Raymond Partolan lifted his denim pant leg a few inches to reveal more of his brown boots. He offered an apology for his casual attire; it’s Friday — the one weekday where he can wear what makes him feel most comfortable to work at the Atlanta-area law office. He loves country music. The background picture on his cell phone depicts Georgia’s state flag. The state motto — “wisdom, justice, moderation” — is tattooed across his shoulder. “After being an American and identifying as a Georgian, thirdly my sense of identity is grounded as being a Southerner,” said Partolan. “I love the best parts of the culture here.” Ask this 24-year-old, who grew up in Macon, where he belongs and he doesn’t mention his birth country. He left the Philippines as a 15-month-old baby.Now Partolan, and thousands of other young, undocumented immigrants who live here, is grappling with the threat that it may not always be home.
  • Atlanta Public Schools is dealing with another cheating investigation. A quarter of the police officers in the district’s recently sworn-in force admitted receiving answers on a state-administered test. Disciplinary proceedings are coming for at least 18 employees. One dispatcher allegedly fed answers to 17 officers while they took the open-book, 30-question, multiple-choice exam.
  • Three sets of eyes are trained on a bank of glowing screens that wraps around the room. Data flashes. Charts fill a large panel. The systems engineers sit in front of smaller, desktop computer monitors. They scan information as it pours in and check for problems. The network operations center, which opened a couple of years ago in a former school turned technology hub, is the front line of the DeKalb County school district’s defense against hackers, cyberthreats, and data theft. “We get close to about 3,000 attacks a day, and so we are able to see it and constantly make adjustments,” said chief information officer Gary Brantley, who likened the onslaught to a barrage of missiles. “The biggest focus is, we are trying to protect kids. We are trying to protect student information.”

Atlanta, City of a Hundred Hills


The skyline view of Atlanta taken from the Jackson Street Bridge, made famous by the TV show The Walking Dead, and captured by me in September, 2017.

In August, I took a big leap and left the familiar landscapes of the Midwest for the wooded neighborhoods and often gridlocked streets of Atlanta, Georgia.

I accepted a job to cover Atlanta Public Schools and join the education team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I packed the contents of my 1,200-square-foot Toledo loft into a suburban Atlanta apartment half that size. I signed a short-term lease and in addition to learning my new beat, am trying to figure out where to live in this sprawling city — threaded with unique neighborhoods but choked with traffic.

I’m getting to know a new place, culture, and people. I’m learning southern words (hants as a synonym for ghosts), exploring the international cuisine of Buford Highway, leaving an hour early to drive ten miles, and adjusting to being called ma’am (and facing rebukes from some southerners when I confess I find the courtesy title slightly off-putting).

I had no idea Atlanta was so hilly (it is just a couple hours from the Appalachian Mountains and on the piedmont after all, from whence our best park is named.)

I had no idea it was so forested.

I had no idea that one needed a Target, Home Depot, and a Publix every couple of miles.

Soon after moving here, I came across this description of the city by W. E. B. Du Bois. It’s lovely and fitting and makes me eager to get to know this new place.

SOUTH of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to curl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land.

W. E. B. Du Bois

From shoe string to heart string

Baby jamie smith jane doe

Jamie Smith’s story is one of those rare tales that made me catch my breath and say “Someone has to write this story, and it has to be me.”

JERRY CITY, Ohio — A snippet of shoestring is one of the only clues to Jamie Smith’s mysterious birth 26 years ago.

On March 24, 1991, she was found in the back seat of an unlocked sedan in Fostoria. She appeared on the plush upholstery as if dropped by a stork one Sunday afternoon.

The unexpected bundle contained a pastel blanket, a blue towel, a boyish striped shirt sized for a kindergartner, and a quiet, 6-plus pound baby girl.

She was a couple days old and likely recently fed. A bit of string tied off her umbilical cord.

Those few threaded inches link Miss Smith to her secret past, which she’s trying to unravel as she searches for her birth mother.

(Full story and wonderful photos and video by Katie Rausch here).

Jamie Smith birth record

Her birth parents have never been located.

She grew up just 15 miles from the spot where she was abandoned, raised by a loving adoptive family who kept every shred of her secretive past: The first snapshots of the mystery  baby, the blanket she was wrapped in, the bit of shoe string.

But Jamie doesn’t know her birthday, or where she was born, much less why she was left. Her name has changed from Baby Jane Doe to Lisa to Jamie as she moved from backseat to foster care to her adoptive parents’ home in rural Wood County, Ohio.

That’s where  I met Jamie, her parents, and grandparents. We poured over the old newspaper clippings they saved, marveled at the bit of shoe lace, and talked about she wants to find her birth mother after all these years. She wants everyone to know how much she loves her parents, how happy her life has been, how she feels no resentment towards her biological mother.

“I know the possibility that they could want nothing to do with me. They could say … ‘We left you for a reason,’ ” she told me. “I feel prepared for that because I still have my family. I’m just curious about the second one.”

I’m so happy to see newspapers  across  the  country pick up this story. I hope it brings Jamie a few of the answers she’s looking for.

Sounding it out


My Southern Revival series about the return of African-Americans to the South wrapped up last week. This is the culmination of about five weeks of work — from researching the reversal of the Great Migration to finding sources and pre-interviews and then driving to Georgia and Mississippi to spend time with each source in their homes. Once back in Ohio, I planned the graphics, obtained the demographic and academic background, pitched the project to editors as a series of stories, tracked down historic photographs, and developed a newsy second Sunday story about how younger, educated African-Americans are leading the exit out of Ohio to the detriment of Rust Belt cities such as Toledo.

The Blade has a page devoted to the project here, with links to all seven stories that ran over the course of six days in early February, plus video, portraits and historic photographs and — TA-DA — my first foray into  audio storytelling.

The audio was put together by The Blade’s new audio department, an effort spearheaded by a colleague who did all the heavy lifting on this. I’m really excited about the possibilities that come with telling stories through this medium. If you have about 4 minutes, listen to this excerpt of an interview with one of the primary sources as she talks about the adjustment of moving from  Ohio to Mississippi, where she played tuba in a marching band at an historically black college.

Southern Revival: Day 1

Today brings the first of six stories in the most extenstive project I’ve done while at The Blade. I’ve spent the last month researching, reporting, and writing about African Americans who are returning to the south in record numbers. The result is Southern Revival, a six-part series that began in today’s Sunday paper and concludes a week from today.

More than five million blacks left the South from 1910 to 1970 in search of better jobs and to escape brutal racism. But then, something strange happened: Some began to return home. By 2015, 58 percent of the nation’s African American population lived in the south — up from barely half in 1970.

My editors wanted a trend story for Black History Month, but nobody knew anyone who had actually left Toledo to return to the south. I spent a solid week checking with black fraternitites and sororities, University of Toledo alumni chapters in southern cities, and black churches. I spoke to local pastors, activists, school officials, coworkers, and even random people at a coffee shop.

The hustle paid off when I identified a half-dozen people with Toledo ties who were willing to tell me their stories. A photographer and I drove  13 hours to Valdosta, Ga., where we met the first of many fascinating people.

We ended our week-long trip in Tchula, Miss. There, at the edge of the Delta, we chatted for hours in the home of the family whose story kicks off the series.


Today: Hilda Rayford, the marching band majorette who moved to Toledo in 1957, and her Toledo-born daughter who followed her parents back to their rural Mississippi farmland.

Check out the story and the photo gallery, which includes historic and current photos of The Rayfords’ life up north and down south.

Breaking news holiday garland


Here’s a way to decorate, recycle, and remember.

Like every reporter, I have stacks of ink-filled notebooks — those long, skinny pads designed for stashing in a pocket or purse while out on assignment. I try to make a habit of regularly tearing out and recycling/ destroying the pages of notebooks I won’t need to reference again. It’s good for journalistic, legal, and privacy reasons (and to avoid being overtaken by piles of paper).

But this time, I tossed the pages and kept the cardboard covers. I created this festive holiday garland by gluing old Christmas wrapping paper to the back of each cover. (It’s a great way to reuse nearly pristine wrapping-paper instead of trashing it after opening up gifts). I punched a couple holes at the top of each pennant and strung craft twine through each small flag. Then, I hung up the three strands on the living room wall behind my Christmas tree.

It was fun to look back at my hastily jotted down description of what the notebook had contained. Each cover represents a deadline and a byline and a dateline from somewhere and some point in my career. As another year draws to a close, it’s a good reminder of the stories I’ve gotten to tell and the people I’ve met.


On baking and newspapering

My Ohio-born and raised grandmother loved the Akron Beacon-Journal, her hometown paper. She lived in the same house on a tidy corner lot in Akron for more than 60 years. The daily delivery of the Beacon-Journal outlasted the milkman, the trolleys, the rubber factory.

But she complained when the Beacon-Journal began to shrink, when its once-robust business section nearly disappeared, and when the bundle landed with a soft pat instead of a thud on her porch steps.

Still, she read the paper cover-to-cover every day, even if that habit took a little less time.

In the last 15 years, I’ve worked in a couple of newsrooms where the features department or food editor asked fellow staff members to submit a favorite cookie recipe for a holiday-themed story or festive food page. I always thought about submitting my grandma’s anise cookie recipe. I knew she would get a huge kick out of seeing her recipe in print, getting a little credit, a tad-bit of newspaper fame. But whenever the opportunity presented itself, I never got around to sending in the recipe.

Our baking roles reversed as she got older. She couldn’t drive as easily to the grocery store to pick up the sugar, flour, and anise extract. She lived alone. She couldn’t bake, frost, and eat a six-dozen batch of cookies. More recently, I baked her anise cookies. I frosted them, and I carefully shipped a few of the most beautifully decorated ones to her each year.

My grandma died last October. This year, The Blade’s features department asked staffers to submit their favorite cookie recipes. The full page recipe collection ran in Sunday’s very-thick Toledo Blade.

Grandma, this one’s for you.


Touchstone Awards


Photo by Jeremy Wadsworth

The Press Club of Toledo recently gave out its 2016 Excellence in Journalism awards, and I’m proud to have received the honor in the print daily category. The award is for this January story, in which Toledo Public Schools grapples with its dismal 63.9 percent four-year high school graduation rate. That rate for the class of 2014 dropped Toledo to the bottom of the eight-urban-district heap in Ohio and made Toledo the second-worst performer in the entire state.

The story came out of the annual Ohio Department of Education school report card data dump, which includes tons of interesting but difficult-to-digest information. This nugget seems to be an especially important detail that local school leaders will be keeping a close eye on.

Just before I won an award for the story, the Toledo school system was able to claim a victory of its own. New department of education data shows Toledo’s class of 2015 four-year graduation rate bumped up to 70.3 percent. Here’s my update from September about that improvement.

Four more years

Saturday marked my fourth work anniversary at The Blade.

My first day in the Toledo newsroom was Oct. 8, 2012. I wrote an eight-inch story about a just-hired YMCA director and talked a lot about northern Michigan with incredulous new colleagues who wondered if I was crazy for leaving behind its beauty and beaches for the surface parking lots and empty storefronts of downtown Toledo.

It was then, as it is now, the height of the presidential election campaign. Ohio — this big, magnificent prize of a swing state– was and is again madness. The political atmosphere is nothing like Michigan, where candidates have long since fled after securing the primary nominations and barely looked back.

For proof of the zaniness that happens during presidential races, look no further than this scene in front of a strip mall in Toledo on a recent Saturday afternoon:


Who is in the center of that throng? It’s not a Clinton, or a Trump, or even a Kaine or a Pence. It’s CJ, Toby, Charlie, Kate, Will, and Josh. As in the cast of the very bygone but much beloved political television drama.

The actors Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Mary McCormack, Joshua Malina, and Bradley Whitford reunited to take a bus tour around Ohio to stump for Hillary Clinton.

Like: the cast of The West Wing, clambering into the bed of a white pick-up truck to address a couple hundred Toledoans in a parking lot shared with a Little Caesar’s.

Without Aaron Sorkin writing the scripts, their speeches were more stilted than soaring. The crowd cared naught. They roared when Janney took the microphone and promised to come back to Toledo and repeat her lip-synced rendition of “The Jackal” if Clinton wins. It was a nice moment, even if the truck-bed rhetoric that preceded her promise was nowhere near as witty and winning as what C.J. Cregg would have delivered in front of a presidential podium in the White House press room.

It made for a nice moment as part of my story and the closest thing that I’ve ever had to a viral Tweet:

Four years in Ohio, and even the crazy parts are starting to look sorta normal.Let’s see what the next four weeks bring.