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Meet Chalkbeat Tennessee’s newest reporter

It’s been about a month since we launched Chalkbeat Tennessee and we want to thank all of our readers for their interest in our coverage so far. Last week we introduced you to Daarel Burnette, our Tennessee bureau chief, and this week we want you to get to know Jackie Zubrzycki, our newest hire.

Jackie, and our other reporters in New York and Colorado, answered questions like why they decided to join Chalkbeat and which teacher most helped them to get where they are today.

1. When you were hired: October 2013

2. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: I covered urban school districts and leadership for Education Week and lived in Washington, D.C., where I also taught for two years and worked at an environmental nonprofit. I came to Chalkbeat because I was interested in being closer to the stories I was telling than I got to be as a national reporter.

Memphis is a great place to be exploring how people are trying to improve schools, and the results – intended and unintended – of that work. It’s a story with national implications. I’m also looking forward to learning about how education fits into a city with such a fascinating history, and how schools affect the quality of people’s lives here.

I was also drawn to Chalkbeat’s start-up energy and its mission: Providing nuanced, independent journalism about what’s working and what’s not working in education.

3. What story you are most proud of: I like stories that leave you with a question. I wrote about some of the issues that came up in New Orleans after most of the city’s teachers had been laid off and were replaced by a younger, less-experienced group of teachers. That change came along with a complex set of questions about community, race, and what it means for schools to be “better,” and I finished writing knowing there was a lot left to learn and tell. A teenager who was expelled after getting something like 240 detentions from a very strict charter school surprised me when it turned out that he actually loved his school, despite its strict rules. Reporting about Memphis schools for Education Week left me very curious about what comes next.

I also like trying to understand how education and schools interact with other parts of society. For example, one story showed how schools and the juvenile justice system often fail to collaborate, which means kids in many states can fall through the cracks when they try to return from juvenile detention centers to public schools. I spoke to a boy who was just getting back from a facility who had a maturity many of my friends would envy. I also wrote about how many kids with low test scores in Detroit are suffering from high blood lead levels.

I’m also on a mission to disprove researchers’ assumptions that reporters always oversimplify their work. Here’s a piece on Responsive Classroom, for instance.

My most-read story ever, however, was about whether schools should still teach cursive. It turns out people have very strong opinions about handwriting!

4. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: The teachers who have helped me most in recent years are all the teachers in my life now: My mom, who teaches third grade; my many friends who are current and former teachers; and my former colleagues, whose hard work, humor, and thoughtfulness still inspire me. It was a teacher-friend who encouraged me to give journalism a try!

My choir directors over the years, my yoga teachers, and my high school English teachers come to mind as people who both challenged me and kept me grounded.

5. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: When I was reporting on New Jersey schools, one district spokeswoman who shall remain unnamed told me that some of the construction contracts in the district are still tied to the mafia. (!) That led to a conversation about a mob-funded wedding and my own stories about a distant uncle’s ties to the Polish mob.

After about 5 minutes of exchanging stories and laughing, though, she got really serious: “But please, don’t report on that…I want you to LIVE!”

Also, while I’ve got your attention: For readers’ reference, I pronounce my last name Zoo – Brick – Ee. Since I’ve started reporting, no one has asked if they could call me “Ms. Zoo,” which my middle schoolers in Washington were dying to do.

E-mail Jackie at jzubrzycki@chalkbeat.org or follow her on Twitter at @JZubrzycki.

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