John HildebrandSenior Education WriterJohn.Hildebrand@newsday.com
Covering education for Newsday puts reporters to the test – at times, literally.
Some years back, we were getting mail from readers – many of them teachers – contending that the state’s Regents exams seemed to be getting easier. Like most reporters, I’m curious. So I called the state Education Department in Albany, which sponsors the exams, and asked what officials there thought of the readers’ complaints. The response from the state’s education commissioner at the time was quick and to the point: “If you think the exams are so easy,” he messaged, “maybe you should try taking them yourself.” Oops.
You probably guessed the outcome. Days after making arrangements with a friendly high school, I found myself in a classroom at 7 o’clock in the morning with a photographer, a dozen regulation blue-ink pens and a copy of a Regents exam, ready to go. An excerpt from my story that ran a few days later described what happened next: “After three hours of testing, my shoulders ached and my right hand had gone numb. “But hey, I scored 97 on a Regents exam in U.S. history and government. And I hadn’t cracked a history textbook in 40 years.”
I took the exam at age 67. I’m 82 now, still covering school board meetings, student assemblies and teacher-union rallies. Why? Well, for one thing, I get to write about Long Islanders. I’ve bounced around a lot of places over the years, including three years in Southeast Asia, and I’ve never seen people more engaged in public education than here on the Island and willing to pay the price: $10,000 or more in property taxes per household, in many cases. In return, people here expect quality education and usually get it. That’s why other education reporters and I spend so much time writing about results of science-research contests, Advanced Placement tests and other measures of achievement. And yes, we also write about school budgets, taxes and administrators’ salaries.
This is my 47th year covering education. I have a few plaques on the wall to mark the passage of time, including four first-place awards from the Education Writers Association, the national organization for journalists in our field. Still, the real satisfactions of the job come from the personal connections: There are those made while working, of course. And there’s three children that my wife and I put through public schools, five grandchildren now enrolled, a daughter who taught in special education, and a daughter-in-law who’s still teaching.
Here’s to them.