Laura Washington: A 25-year Catalyst for Chicago schools

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When things get ugly, you need a Catalyst.

In July 2013, Sarah Karp, a veteran reporter for Catalyst Chicago, first sniffed out the $20 million, no-bid contract the Chicago Public Schools doled out to the now-infamous SUPES Academy.

Catalyst raised the right questions, and investigations ensued.Those inquiries eventually led to the shocking resignation, indictment and guilty plea from former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

That ugly episode also unearthed crucial questions about corruption, lack of oversight and waste at the CPS.

That is just one example of the dogged, intuitive and insightful reporting that is a hallmark of Catalyst’s quarter century of fine reporting.


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Catalyst is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a publication that tells the story of urban education and school reform during times of upheaval, change and every moment in between.

Catalyst “provides essential information that people who want to change things can use,” says Linda Lenz, its founder and publisher.

In the 1980s, Lenz covered education for the Sun-Times. As Chicago’s historic school reform movement dawned, she knew it needed an independent watchdog to monitor the progress and players. She pitched the idea of a publication to the Community Renewal Society. CRS launched Catalyst in 1990 and since has helped the nonprofit news shop thrive, along with a heavy lift from the city’s education-minded foundations.

Lenz and her stellar staff have toiled to make Catalyst a nationally recognized platform for information and analysis of urban education. Catalyst has won dozens of journalism awards and is a model for replicas in other cities, including Philadelphia, New York and Minneapolis.

I watched it all from an inside perch. For years, I had an office next door to Lenz when I worked at The Chicago Reporter, Catalyst’s sister publication.Lenz is my go-to expert on all things education, a tough, yet thoughtful editor who delivers the right information at the right time.

The late Mayor Harold Washington was the biggest champion of school reform.He also liked to declare that in his administration, “We’ll find you, and be fair to you, wherever you are.”

So will Linda Lenz.Catalyst ruffled official feathers and stirred the political pot, but always with dispassion and fairness.

Lenz was reflective last week, fresh from a festive 25th anniversary gala at the House of Blues.

Karp’s blockbuster story helped bring down a Chicago Public Schools’ CEO.But, Lenz tells me, “we don’t think of what’s a ‘good’ story, what’s a ‘sexy’ story.”

Instead, Catalyst looks at “what’s successful, and what’s not.”

Catalyst asks the right questions so “we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” she adds.

To wit, Catalyst’s work has brought light to harsh school discipline policies, student retention, inequities in school budgeting and much more.

In her 25th anniversary editorial, Lenz notes that people often ask:After decades of reform, are Chicago’s public schools any better?

“I know they’d like a simple yes or no, but I find neither satisfying,” she writes. “Rather, it’s been more like yes and no, or two steps forward, one step back.”

She concludes:“It’s complicated.”

More than ever.Investigations of the Byrd-Bennett scandal continue. Another teachers’ strike may be brewing. Top officials, including the governor, have suggested that CPS could go bankrupt. The debate over whether Chicago needs an elected school board rages on.

Chicago’s education go-to is retiring at the end of the year. A national search for Lenz’s successor is underway.

More than ever, Catalyst must continue to raise the right questions.


Follow Laura Washington on Twitter: Follow @MediaDervish

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