Insideschools.org on Its Way Out?

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When New York City parents want to navigate the labyrinthine school system, they have three main options: try their luck with the Department of , hire a pricey school consultant or buy a book with the inside scoop. But for the past seven years, there has also been Insideschools.org, which has grown from a small site listing the “best ” in New York to a vital part of the city’s public education landscape. Many view the site as a democratizing force that provides information about every single school, far beyond the statistics.

The site’s neatly organized school reviews are culled from hundreds of school visits conducted by the Insideschools staff, giving visitors insight into how test scores and reputations stack up against in-person observations of atmosphere, safety, classroom interactions and more.

Right: the Insideschools staff during better days, the winter of 2008. Pamela Wheaton (above), the website’s project director, now occupies a much emptier office. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Pamela Wheaton, the website’s project director, now occupies a much emptier office. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

“I use that website all the time,” said Shari Honig, a mother of two public elementary school students on the Upper East Side. “It’s really well known. It tells you a school’s test scores, ethnic diversity, what kind of programs they have, who works there, what zone it is—and there are parent comments. And you can put in different searches—your zone, district, K-to-8 versus K-to-6 programs, gifted and talented programs. It’s easy to use and navigate. I think a lot of people use the site because it’s got everything.”

But of course even a popular website isn’t immune to this economy: in June, the site announced drastic budget and staffing cuts, and launched a fundraising drive aimed at regular users. As a little red thermometer inches up the home page, news that the site won’t be able to conduct its usual rigorous review of city schools is a sign of the difficult climate facing families and the city as a whole. And with mayoral control likely to continue, school crowding likely to worsen and funding likely to shrink, a site like Insideschools could be more vital than ever.

Insideschools began as a compilation of abbreviated entries from founder and former project director Clara Hemphill’s staple series of books, New York City’s Best Public Schools. But in 2002, the site got a grant from the Sloane Foundation, which focuses on government accountability. Contributors expanded their focus beyond “the best” to cover every single school in the city, and give parents a conduit to the Department of Education.

“In such a complicated system, parents really need help,” said Pamela Wheaton, the website’s project director. “With increased choice, parents need to be informed about what their choices are.”

The task grew continuously; thanks to the “small schools” movement, the website’s school visit target has consistently moved upward. There are 66 new schools opening this fall alone, points out Mandy Hass, who works at Insideschools’ parent organization, Advocates for Children of New York (the nonprofit focuses on homeless and foster care students, as well as students in the juvenile justice system).

“When the site launched in 2002, there were 1,100 public schools in New York City. Now it’s 1,500,” Hass said. “And each new school needs a visit. We’ve visited virtually all schools in the city except for a tiny handful of principals who wouldn’t let have access.”

Until the economic crisis hit, the “tiny and underpaid” staff, as Hass characterizes it, consisted of four to five full-time workers and several freelance reporters. Still, the team was able to complete up to 200 school visits a year. Their efforts paid off: in 2008, Insideschools had 1,169,287 visitors, according to Hass—more than the 1.1 million students in the system, the nation’s largest. Visitors are mostly parents but also include older students and teachers and administrators within the system.

The sites’ founders believe that public school parents should have the same kind of choices as private school parents. Staffers therefore pay close attention to the way a school feels—what’s its mission, vibe in the hallways, educational approach and where does it fit in with other schools of its size or type? One entry frankly described the whiff of marijuana from a stairwell at a now-closed Bronx high school. The site tries to be sensitive and anticipate a diverse group of potential concerns, from school safety to special education to facilities.

The Insideschools staff during better days, the winter of 2008. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

The Insideschools staff during better days, the winter of 2008. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Expanded user-oriented features include advice columns, a blog with policy news, polls, forums, classified ads, a “write the chancellor” section and a “speak out” section, where parents have successfully protested policies like the confusing high school admissions process. The site has become a clearinghouse for public education chatter and action.

Both Wheaton and Hass feel that Insideschools has led the department to become more transparent and responsive to parents, and the department seems to concur.

“It has provided very clear and helpful information to parents for years,” said David Cantor, a department spokesman. “It would be tremendously missed if it were unable to continue. It’s pushed us to make our own site better simply in terms of how easy it is to navigate. They’ve set a very high standard that we would like to match.”

The trouble, unsurprisingly, started during last year’s financial crisis. As some of the initial seed funding from Sloan was due to expire at the end of the 2008 fiscal year, Advocates for Children presented a plan for the site’s sustainability, according Wheaton. The parent organization had linked up with a for-profit media company, Time Out New York Kids, that had agreed to pay for half of the site’s operating costs. But when the markets plunged in the fall of 2008, Time Out New York Kids was unable to meet its commitments. A few other negotiations for future funding that had been in full swing when the panic hit also collapsed.

“Most foundations want you to come out on the other with end a plan on how to become self-sustaining,” Wheaton said. “And we had a plan. We had lots of plans; given unforeseen circumstances, some of those plans just didn’t pan out. It was a convergence of factors that happened last fall.”

Under these circumstances, Advocates for Children could only sustain its website budget until June 30, 2009. According to Wheaton, the vast majority of overhead was the “modest” salaries and benefits for full-time employees and freelancers, and travel and office expenses (staff work out of Advocates for Children’s offices on West 30th Street). The group had redesigned the website in the summer of 2008 in order to even further reduce the cost and time of maintenance.

The site let go four staffers and all freelancers: “published journalists, former teachers, professionals with years of experience with the public schools,” Wheaton laments.

She detailed some of the cuts on June 30th blog post: “The good news is that Insideschools will not go dark. The sad news is that we have had to let go some of our gifted and committed staff members. And given our severely constrained financial circumstances, we will be curtailing some of our features.”

The remaining staffers—just a couple of full- and part-timers—have secured some limited funding and are running a fundraising drive for individual donations, hoping to raise $10,000 from parents.

Editorial boards, education advocates and other concerned citizens are also speaking out about the site’s value.

“Are we nuts? With advocates raising a hue and cry over giving parents a greater voice in the schools, it is simply unbelievable that no one is rallying to save a website called Insideschools.org,” cried a June 14 editorial in the Daily News, which was met by several comments from parents praising the site. Writers at wonky policy sites like Gotham Gazette and Gotham Schools, which usually host non-opinionated forums, have expressed support for Insideschools’ mission. Other parenting and school websites and list-servs, like NYC Mom and Park Slope Parents, are running ads encouraging members to raise cash.

“We’re feeling a lot of love, but now what we really need to find is money or skilled people who care about city schools who are willing to work with us,” Hass said.

Currently, there is no official timeline: the staff says it will continue to work at a reduced capacity until there is funding to expand again. At press time, Insideschools was more than halfway to the initial $10,000 fundraising goal, having raised $7,362 as of July 13 through user donations. The group also recently snagged an additional $150,000 foundation grant from a soon-to-be announced source. Still, these influxes of cash represent just a fraction of operating costs, Wheaton says, given that the site needs several full-time staffers and part-time tech support even to run at a bare-bones capacity.

Savings may be found in other ways, by relying more on readers to update information, for example, and working with service centers and education graduate schools to conduct school visits. Recently laid-off or retired would-be writers may also jump at an opportunity to help out.

Like many media outlets these days, the website needs a new model, and staff are busy brainstorming and experimenting with ideas for keeping content fresh. That includes the ever-popular citizen journalism or crowd-sourcing: asking readers, en masse, to contribute a piece of information. But the staff doesn’t want the whole site to rely on crowd-sourcing for fear that it will lead to inequality in coverage, with a greater focus on big or high-performing schools.

“I’m optimistic because there are 1.1 million kids in school, and the parents really value what we’re doing,” Wheaton said. “If they know how they can help, they will.”

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