Tara Servatius: Crunching the Damning Numbers

Editor’s Note: This is the 10th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Tara Servatius is obsessed with spreadsheets, but it wasn’t always that way. As a staff writer at Creative Loafing (Charlotte), the Charlotte native says she never thought she had the time, nor the resources, to pull off the type of enterprise, data-filled reporting that big daily newspapers go after. That was until she stumbled upon some statistics on the Internet that were completely unrelated to the story she was working on at the time.

Startling in their implications, the statistics from a state-mandated report on students and teachers within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system led Servatius to do a comparative study that served as the basis for her story "Flawed Priorities." The article answers the question of why schools that have the highest number of African American and low-income students continue to lag behind other district schools in student performance, even after millions of dollars have been funneled into the low-performing schools.

The answer that Servatius provides in her article — disparities in teacher experience — may seem like an obvious one. But if it hadn’t been for some in-depth research and spreadsheet savvy, Servatius may never have gotten there. In her article, she reported that the schools with the highest concentrations of minority and poor children "are teacher turnover mills with much higher numbers of inexperienced teachers who leave in a seemingly endless stream, only to be replaced by more just like them." The story won a 2005 AltWeekly Award for Education Reporting.

Now Servatius says she’s hooked on doing the type of reporting that alternative weeklies don’t do enough of: the kind that requires data analysis.

You did a lot of research for the story, how long did it take you to complete it from start to finish?

I didn’t do it all at once, but I’d say 80 to 100 hours.

So you were juggling other projects at the same time. How were you able to balance them?

Most of it was Excel-spreadsheet kind of work, so if I was waiting for the phone for something else, I’d be entering data in and crunching it. In the alternative media we have this mindset where we get a tip on something and think, "I don’t have the daily’s guy who can go in and do all these numbers for me so I can’t do that story. It’s too big." When I wrote the article, I learned that we can do big numbers stories. We can dig deeper than most of us think we’d ever have the time to do.

It must have been intimidating at first.

Yeah. I like math, but I’m not necessarily good at it. [Laughs.] I just kept adding information until I got this massive shipwreck of a spreadsheet going. If I had set out and my editor had said, "Okay, I need you to find out what the teaching quality is like in schools that are poor and largely African American," I would have thought it impossible. I kind of backed into it, but it’s easier than it seems it would be.

If you hadn’t had the state-mandated report on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system to work from, would you have been able to do the story?

There’s no way. Reports are so boring and they’re not sexy, but there is some good stuff in them. I didn’t really realize that until I did the article. That sounds really dumb I know. But you’d be amazed how much data a reporter can find if you go to your state’s education Web site and your city’s education Web site. Just start reading. Don’t even look for anything in particular. That’s how I got the story. I wasn’t looking, I was just curious.

Did you have any help in crunching the numbers?

No. I did it all myself. It was fun, though; it really was. I got to know the school system in a way that I never could have before. You could see the whole county laid out in front of you socio-economically just by looking at each school’s teacher quality and the types of kids who go there.

You mentioned in the story that some of the school board members were really surprised by the results of your analysis. Were you?

Yeah, once I put it all together. I hadn’t realized that it was going to be that drastic. I could never prove this, but I suspect the folks that run the school system were well aware of the situation. How could they not be? They know where the teachers go.

Did you have any problems getting school officials to go on record with their comments about the study?

I really didn’t. Once I told them about it, they all had a comment, which was basically, "Oh, I didn’t know." School board members are all between a rock and hard place because we have a pretty powerful teacher’s organization here that endorses candidates. Teachers don’t want to go to teach in the inner-city schools, so that’s why we’re willing to spend millions on schools but not willing to put the good teachers in them. Politically, there would be a price to pay for that.

So what was the response to the article?

It was talked about a lot afterward, and the superintendent put together a proposal that would pay teachers a lot more for going to work in low-income schools. It would have also forced some of the best teachers to go to work in those schools. It had a multi-million dollar price tag, and the county commission wasn’t willing to pay for it. The daily newspaper here also started doing a lot of reporting on it.

What was its coverage like?

They didn’t redo the story I did or anything. They just started covering the issue and editorializing on it, which was kind of funny because they actually hadn’t written the article. They didn’t mention my story; they just sort of started talking about it.

You mentioned that you really like working with lots of data. What is it that draws you to it?

Honestly, I really think it’s fun to use Excel spreadsheets. I’m at the point where if I stumble upon something that has numbers I can put in a spreadsheet, I’m more inclined to do the story. I know it’s nuts. I can’t explain it. After the story, I started using Excel for all my bills and everything I needed to keep track of. It’s fun when everything winds up all nice and neat and spits data back at you. I just think that’s the coolest thing.

Sounds like you’re a bit of a wonk.

Yeah, I guess so. I think I’ve become more of one since I did the story. Now I do a lot of spreadsheet stories.

Such as?

One of the more recent ones that I did is on white flight and how the school system is driving white flight. I noticed that in raw numbers the enrollment of white children in our school system was staying the same, while the system as a whole was growing at a rapid pace. After I got all the numbers, we sent the data to a professor to analyze, and he said it was a classic white-flight pattern. It’s a fleeing of the school system first, and then you start to see it reflected in property trends. We were the first ones to figure out that white flight is starting here in Charlotte, with people moving into the outskirts of the city and surrounding counties.

What advice would you give reporters interested in doing stories that involve a lot of data analysis?

I would just say check and double-check your work. Make sure that your numbers are right, and definitely run it by someone who would know. You don’t want to be crunching numbers on deadline. You want to make sure you have time to go through every piece of data. I did that with my story. I spent two days alone just double-checking my numbers — going through every comparison of every school. Really, my fear was that I had entered a number in wrong somewhere, not that I had calculated wrong because the spreadsheet calculates.

Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.

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