Linda Lenz, kept generations of Chicago Public Schools parents informed through her nonprofit publication Catalyst, dead at 77

Ms. Lenz created a nonprofit model of reporting education news that has been replicated across the country.

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Linda Lenz

Linda Lenz

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As founder and publisher of the education publication Catalyst, Linda Lenz made it her mission to inform parents about what was going on in Chicago Public Schools.

Ms. Lenz started the nonprofit in 1990 after CPS empowered local school councils — consisting of parents and other community members — with making decisions about curriculum, personnel and budgetary matters.

“It occurred to her that these parents might not be up to speed on education,” said her husband, Marshall Froker. “And she wanted to inform members of these local school councils on what was going on in education, and specifically, in CPS.”

Catalyst began appearing in parents’ mailboxes all over the city.

Before starting Catalyst, Ms. Lenz worked as an education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.

She described Catalyst as a publication that married research, analysis, extensive on-the-ground reporting and deep knowledge of the school system to identify what was working, what was not working, and why.

Over the 26 years that Catalyst was published, first in print, then online, it became a must-read for thousands of parents, teachers, education experts and CPS administrators alike.

Her work helped pave the way for a number of similar nonprofit publications around the country.

Ms. Lenz died Friday after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 77.

“Linda, personally, was a force of nature,” said former CPS Chief Executive Officer and Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas. “Aggressive yet fair, always considerate and respectful of others and their opinions, she was perhaps the city’s premier expert on public education policy and trends.”

“Some of our conversations, and often arguments, over school reform were exhausting but memorable. Her expertise often influenced my perspective and always left me wanting to hear more. Her legacy will be long in Chicago, and she will be missed and long remembered,” Vallas said.

“What she really emphasized was that education reporting should be about school improvement and the interests of students with a focus on the nitty-gritty, like principal turnover and curriculum development,” said WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp, who formerly worked at Catalyst.

Ms. Lenz championed education reporting as a career destination, not a pit stop, Karp said.

“She made it feel OK to want to be an education reporter. People are always like ‘You got to move on and cover politics or become an investigative reporter, do other things,’” Karp said.

Former Sun-Times columnist and television news anchor Carol Marin said the beat didn’t always get the attention it deserved.

“It wasn’t a beat that kind of garnered the sort of respect that the politics beat could. Maybe it was because it was about little kids, not political players, but she got that,” Marin said. “And she was fearless, and I really think she changed our understanding of public education in Chicago because she was sort of like an inspector general as a reporter.”

Ms. Lenz gave reporters time and space — allowances that Karp said made it possible for her to report on a no-bid contract awarded by former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. The contract was later revealed to be part of a bribery scandal.

“Linda Lenz cared a lot about schools, and she knew them well,” former CPS CEO and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “She really focused on kids in classrooms and how kids were learning, and I’m sorry to hear about her passing. I urge new education reporters to take time to study her work because she really set a high standard of honesty, objectivity and insight.”

Ms. Lenz, who enjoyed ballroom dancing and for decades lived in Streeterville, would occasionally get recognized while out and about because she was a regular on local television and radio news programs where she would lend insight on education.

“She cared about this city and the school kids in this city,” said Froker, a former Sun-Times editor. “She loved this city, and Catalyst was a part of that. That was Linda: ‘What do people need? Can I be of help?’”

Lorraine Forte, former managing editor at Catalyst and current editorial page editor of the Sun-Times, said Ms. Lenz set an example with Catalyst that’s been followed by others.

“She really was one of the first to do the nonprofit media thing. It was supported by foundations and was something really new and different,” she said. “I do think she had an impact on education in this city.”

In 2006, Ms. Lenz received a lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Headline Club.

In addition to her husband, survivors include her stepdaughter, Erica Cirigliano, and her brother, Robert Lenz.

Services are being planned.

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