Elissa Nadworny | KERA News

Elissa Nadworny

Elissa Nadworny reports and edits for the NPR Ed Team. She's led the team's multiplatform strategy – incorporating radio, print, comics, and multimedia into the coverage of education. In 2017, she was part of the NPR Ed team that won a Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As a reporter, she's covered many education topics including new education research, chronic absenteeism, college access for low-income students, and the changing demographics of higher ed.

After the 2016 election she traveled with Melissa Block across the U.S., for the Our Land series. They reported from communities small and large, capturing how people's identity is shaped by where they live.

Prior to coming to NPR, Nadworny worked at Bloomberg News, reporting on the White House. For Bloomberg, she's covered stories on immigration, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's return to the U.S. and the president's health. You can still occasionally catch her reporting from 1600 Penn on the weekends.

A recipient of the McCormick National Security Journalism Scholarship, she spent four months reporting a story about U.S. international food aid for USA Today, traveling to Jordan to report on food programs for Syrian refugees. In addition to USA Today, she's written stories for Dow Jones' MarketWatch, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald and McClatchy DC.

A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Nadworny has a bachelor's degree in documentary film from Skidmore College and a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

It's one of the oldest issues in school improvement: Getting kids to show up. If students miss 10 percent of the school year — that's just two days a month --research shows they are way more likely to fall behind — even drop out.

Today, the U.S. Education Department is releasing a report on the first national data set on chronic absence — defined as missing 15 or more days of school a year. The numbers come from the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection survey — an on-the-ground look from 95,000 schools.

Mel Atkins has spent most of his life with Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan. He graduated from Ottawa Hills High, where he played baseball. But his real love was bowling. He says he's bowled 22 perfect games.

He's been a teacher and principal in the city's public schools. And now he works for the district, overseeing just about everything related to students.

One more thing you need to know about him: Mel Atkins is a number-cruncher.

Three years ago, the superintendent came to him with a question: Does Grand Rapids have an issue with chronic absenteeism?

The commencement speech season is underway and grads are soaking up advice and wisdom all over the country.

And since it's an election year, it's hard for speakers to resist stepping onto the soapbox.

Last weekend, President Obama spoke at Rutgers University in New Jersey, one of the nation's oldest higher ed institutions. He appeared to take a jab at Donald Trump — though he didn't call him out by name.

Public schools in the U.S. now have a majority of nonwhite students.

That's been the case since 2014, and yet children of color — especially boys — still lag behind their white peers.

This story has been all over the media. It's topic No. 1 at education conferences on university campuses. Even the White House is all over it.

But what Ron Ferguson wants to know is why. And he says there's a big group of experts out there who never get asked about it: boys and young men of color.

When you enter Marissa McGee's classroom, the first thing you notice is her connection with her students. They're delighted by her enthusiasm, they pick up on her sarcasm, and they often double over with giggles when she makes a joke.

And this is kindergarten. So McGee's students — her audience — are 5-year-olds.

"They're easy to please," she says, laughing. "I'm not that funny. I wouldn't even consider myself funny at all."

This rapport is how Marissa McGee works to shape these kindergartners into thoughtful, educated adults.

So we're about halfway through our 50 Great Teachers project, and we've been looking for ways of shaking it up. We've done photo essays, web comics and videos.

These endeavors brought us to our latest idea: Instead of us reporting the story, let's let the kids do it.

Once we found a great teacher — Mrs. Marlem Diaz-Brown in Miami — we had to be sure she was willing to let us take over her fourth-grade class. And she was.

It's one of the most basic things in education: seeing the board. Research has shown, over and over again, that if you can't see, you're going to have an awfully hard time in school. And yet too often this simple issue gets overlooked.

Set back from the main road, surrounded by trees along the Winooski River, is Vermont's only facility for youths in trouble. The building hardly looks like a jail, but young people come here from all over the state for offenses ranging from shoplifting or selling drugs to felony charges like sexual assault or murder.

When I first visited Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, I was given a tour by a young man named Tyler. To protect their privacy, we've agreed not to use the students' last names or tell you why they're here.

On any given weekend, the Washington, D.C., public library system offers nearly a dozen classes. You can try Matt McEntee's class, where he'll teach you how to fix anything from a clock to a broken heart. Maybe you're interested in creating a photo book, or you'd like to get better at Microsoft Word?

When I first read Originals I couldn't help but take notes. What I jotted down was essentially a to-do list for how I could be more creative, how I could think up and then communicate new ideas.

But the book — written by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — is not just a guide for adults.

Its pages are littered with interesting advice on how teachers and parents can encourage and cultivate their kids to be original, too.

When Susan Cain wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking in 2012, it was a big success. The book made the cover of Time magazine, spent weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list and was the subject of one of the most-watched TED Talks, with more than 13 million views.

By some accounts, education is a $7 trillion global industry ripe for disruption. Others see it as a sacred pursuit, nurturing developing minds while preserving tradition. Around the world, education means equal rights and opportunity.

People risk their lives for it every day.

"What are some of the things that the monsters like to eat in this story?" teacher Marisa McGee asks a trio of girls sitting at her table.

McGee teaches kindergarten at Walker Jones Elementary in Washington, D.C. Today's lesson: a close reading of the book What Do Monsters Eat?

"They like to eat cake," says one girl.

"I noticed you answered in a complete sentence," McGee says. "Can you tell me something else?"

"Stinky socks!"

Every morning, the familiar routine plays out in hundreds of thousands of classrooms: A teacher looks out over the desks, taking note of who's in their seats and who isn't.

On any given day, maybe there are one or two empty chairs. One here, one there. And that all goes into the school's daily attendance rate.

But here's what that morning ritual doesn't show: That empty desk? It might be the same one that was empty last week or two weeks ago. The desk of a student who has racked up five, 10, 20 absences this year.

At 7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, you'll find Mark Gaither standing on Gough Street in southeast Baltimore. He's outside Wolfe Street Academy, the neighborhood elementary school where he's the principal.

Gaither has a huge umbrella in case it rains, and thick gloves for when it snows. He's here each morning to greet students and families as they come to school — which should make for at least 225 "good mornings."

Our Tools of the Trade series examines iconic objects of the education world.

The 24 juniors and seniors in the astronomy class at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., sink into plush red theater seats. They're in a big half-circle around what looks like a giant telescope with a globe on the end. Their teacher, Lee Ann Hennig, stands at a wooden control panel which, appropriately, has enough buttons and dials to launch a rocket.

Of all the teachers in the U.S., only 2 percent are black and male. That news is bad enough. But it gets worse: Many of these men are leaving the profession.

Just last month, a new study found that the number of black teachers in the public schools of nine cities dropped between 2002 and 2012. In Washington, D.C., black teachers' share of the workforce dropped from 77 percent to 49 percent.

"What's the first thing we do when we get to our bike?" David Gesualdi asks his second-graders. "Check the air!" they yell back at him.

His 19 students are sitting in a semicircle in the gym at Walker-Jones Education Campus, not far from the U.S. Capitol.

Decked out in blue helmets, hair nets (for lice protection) and bright orange mesh vests, their eyes shift impatiently between their phys-ed teacher and the racks of shiny new BMX bikes behind him.

First, though, he walks them through the A-B-C's: "Air. Brake. Chain."

Take a big room in Manhattan with more than 100 people, all of them fired up about education. Add some dramatic lighting and booming PA announcements, and you've got last week's New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference. And everybody there, from university presidents to ed tech startups, was talking about how higher education is changing.

Here are some of the themes and ideas that stole the show.

So you finally get the chance to meet one-on-one with your child's teacher — now what?

Like a good Scout, be prepared: Educators agree that doing your homework before a parent-teacher conference can make a big difference.

There's an open box of skulls on the floor. A table is covered with pelvis bones. Nearby: a pile of ribs, tied up with a piece of string.

I'm standing in a basement room, underneath the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Looking at floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with cardboard boxes. More than a thousand boxes, and each one contains a human skeleton.

"Pick a box. Any box," says Dr. Dawnie Steadman, the director of the school's forensic anthropology program. "What's your pleasure?"

On the second floor of Morgan State University's engineering building, Jacob Walker, 12, is putting the finishing touches on a ruler he's just created.

Not yet an actual ruler. One he's designing on the computer. He just needs to add his initials — then it's time to produce it on a 3-D printer.

Jacob starts seventh grade in the fall and has big dreams. Building this ruler is all part of the plan.

"When I was a child," he says, "I loved to play with Legos, and it inspired me to be an engineer when I get older."

NPR Ed published the first-ever database of the most popular high school plays and musicals in the U.S. in July 2015. Today, the 2017 numbers are out, so we've updated our original story.

The brilliant script, the "really fun" music and the exciting tech and staging feats were just a few of the reasons John Minigan decided to have his students perform The Addams Family.

I can remember the weeks before starting school at Skidmore College, furiously trying to finish Gregory Howard Williams' memoir, Life on the Color Line. The book had been assigned as our freshman reading assignment — part of the First-Year Experience at the liberal arts school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Four years later, Williams spoke at our graduation.

It's early evening in Friendship Cemetery, the local graveyard in Columbus, Miss. The white tombstones are coated with that yellow glow you only see right before dusk.

Students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science are spread out among the gravestones. They're dressed up in costumes: A tall brunette is wearing a dark maroon dress her grandmother made. A young man wears a top hat and leans on a walking cane.

The commencement speech season is underway and recent grads are soaking up the advice and wisdom from speakers across the country.

Last weekend, Michelle Obama spoke at Tuskegee University in Alabama, one of the nation's premier historically black universities. She spoke openly about being black in America.

"There will be times ... when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are," she told grads.

"The road ahead is not going to be easy," she said. "It never is, especially for folks like you and me."

No matter how high you climb in life, you never forget your favorite teacher.

This week, President Obama awarded Shanna Peeples, a high school English teacher from Amarillo, Texas, the title of the 2015 National Teacher of the Year.

We've been exploring great teaching as well, with our 50 Great Teachers Project. We even shared the stories of our own favorite teachers.

Open up the newspaper or turn on the news these days, and you'll find plenty of talk about race and racism. But it's a different story in many classrooms.

Some teachers don't consider race germane to their math or English syllabus. Others strive for colorblindness in the classroom, wanting to believe we live in a post-racial society. Unfortunately, says H. Richard Milner, we don't.

The NPR Ed Team is all about great teaching — so how could we attend the annual SXSW education conference and not ask folks to tell us about their favorite teachers?

For Whitney Bischoff, high school was tough. On the first day of her freshman year, a childhood friend committed suicide. Things weren't any better at home — her father died when she was 7 and her mom was an alcoholic with an abusive boyfriend.

She had a hard time making friends.

And when all the stress threatened to overwhelm her, she, too, considered suicide.

"I thought family was everything," Bischoff says. "I thought, if I didn't have family support – what am I going to do? Suicide seemed like the only way out."

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