by Allison Dobscha
Education Lab, a project of The Seattle Times, focuses on public education solutions and aims to center students in much of its community journalism. Ed Lab involves students, not just as the subjects and sources of education stories, but also as central to the reporting process. For example, the outlet teamed up with a youth program of King County Public Health to solicit stories from students about how they’re coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. This initial relationship led to a second project, in which a group of female students of color produced a guide to help their peers access mental health services.
Education Lab also hosts a signature student engagement program called Student Voices, launched in 2015 – two years after Ed Lab began. High school and college students with experience in Washington public schools receive one-on-one coaching from Seattle Times editors to produce stories from start to finish. This includes pitching ideas, drafting content, editing, and finally publishing their work in print and on the Education Lab website. The content is edited for clarity and accuracy, but students select their topics, support each other, and write in their voices, resulting in a suite of stories that truly reflect student priorities. In line with Education Lab’s larger goals, students are encouraged to include potential solutions in their articles.
Organization Background: The Seattle Times, founded in 1896, is an independent news media publication that reaches more adults in the Pacific Northwest than any other local media in the region. Education Lab, a project of the Seattle Times launched in 2013, covers persistent problems in K-12 public education, collaborating with teachers, students, parents, and the greater community to report on potential solutions.
Project Goals: The Student Voices program aims to engage the people primarily affected by public education policies and decisions: students. In addition to their contributions to more accurate and inclusive education reporting, student participants benefit from the program by learning journalism skills and receiving mentorship.
Project Resources: The Seattle Times Education Lab is funded by the Seattle Foundation, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, City University of Seattle, and Comcast Washington. The Education Lab team includes a dedicated editor, two reporters, a digital developer, and an engagement editor.
Tools & Technology: Education Lab has utilized various tools to engage students and community members, including Hearken, Google Forms, QR codes, voice memos, Zoom, Teams and other video conferencing platforms.
Impact: Education Lab typically doesn’t hold Student Voices essays accountable to the same metrics as its other stories. Regardless of page views, Ed Lab hopes to build an appetite for student perspectives within its readership and assesses impact based on community response. For example, one student’s article about his frustration with a lack of financial literacy education led to robust community response, inspiring an upcoming series of community-contributed columns on financial topics. The program has allowed for more regular interaction with students and improved trust between Education Lab, its sources, and its audiences.
One quantitative result that has been especially illuminating is the amount of time people spend reading Student Voices essays. Readers typically stay between five and six minutes for an 800- to 1,000-word piece, indicating that people aren’t skimming the stories, but rather, staying longer and diving deeper.
How it Happened
The Student Voices program was created by Education Lab’s first engagement editor, Anika Anand. Anand and the Education Lab team realized that student perspectives were frequently omitted from education reporting, policy planning, and curricula despite being the primary targets of these decisions. In 2015, Ed Lab launched Student Voices, a cohort-based training and reporting program, to remedy this problem, giving Washington students the authority and autonomy to share their own experiences in public education. Since the program’s founding, Education Lab has worked to attract a more diverse cohort of participants, including students with disabilities and students with nontraditional education experiences (e.g., incarceration, gap years, homelessness).
1. Compensating Participants
Student participants are compensated for their involvement, receiving at least a $100 gift card in recognition of their time and labor, with the potential for higher compensation if they contribute art or photography, or if they write longer or more heavily researched pieces. This is a common practice at Education Lab, which typically provides gift cards to participants in its community listening sessions and other engagement projects. Ed Lab has found that compensation is a fair and effective way to ensure long-term relationship-building with participants, who may otherwise not be able to take time out of their day for this work.
2. Clarifying Expectations around Risks and Ramifications
All youth participants under the age of 18 must submit a consent form signed by themselves and a parent/guardian in order for their work and image to be published. Education Lab also teaches its student participants about the potential risks and ramifications of their reporting. For example, Ed Lab worked closely with a student intending to reveal their transgender identity in a story to ensure that the young reporter fully understood the potential risks of this disclosure (like bullying) and had a solid support network at home or school. On another occasion, Ed Lab intervened when a student received hate mail resulting from political opinions in their story. Another Student Voices contributor expressed fear of retaliation when critiquing the lack of Black faculty at their predominantly white university, so Education Lab provided coaching on how to approach the reporting process and offered to intervene if retaliation did occur. Ed Lab encouraged this student to be transparent with their sources to avoid potential surprises.
3. Translating Language and Culture
Some content published by Education Lab, including Student Voices articles, are translated into Spanish and Somali. The translation is built into Ed Lab’s budget as a necessary part of the publishing process, not an optional add-on. Ed Lab is particularly proud of its partnership with its Somali translator Mohamud Yussuf, editor and publisher of Seattle-based Runta News, who ensures that content is accessible and culturally appropriate for Somali readers.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Attracting a Diverse Group of Applicants
Ed Lab is constantly working to improve outreach to a more diverse set of Student Voices applicants, including students with experience in special education and students disconnected from a traditional K-12 institution. While cohorts have typically been racially and geographically diverse, Ed Lab also wants to represent student experiences with a wider variety of public education pathways. Outside of Student Voices, Ed Lab has youth writer partnerships with TeenTix (provides coverage at the intersections of education and the arts) and a foster youth-driven program called Youth Voice.
2. Supporting and Prioritizing Students
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Education Lab reporters and staff have frequently needed to pivot to address breaking news and other pressing projects. This has resulted in delays in editing and publishing students’ work. Some students also need more support, especially during the pandemic, in finding their voices and learning how to write for a news organization and could use more time and feedback on their work. Ed Lab would like to better listen to and meet students’ needs to help them write, edit, and publish their work in a more meaningful and timely manner.
3. Expanding Translation and Accessibility
While Ed Lab is proud of its translation work into Spanish and Somali, it acknowledges that there are more than 150 languages spoken by families in Seattle’s public schools. In the future, it hopes to expand its translation output to reach more students, educators, and families. Additionally, it has not yet fully explored options for integrating various journalism formats to meet the needs of diverse audiences, such as experimenting with audio components and podcasts, expanded social media presence, videos, and more. In addition to reaching multicultural audiences, Ed Lab aims to be more accessible for people who have sensory and cognitive differences or who better understand information represented visually, aurally, or in simplified language.
What Else You Should Know
Education Lab is working to maintain and nourish long-term relationships with its sources and contributors by following up months or even years after the initial project is finished. This includes an effort to check in with Student Voices alumni to learn more about what the experience meant to them and how it may have influenced their direction.
To learn more, feel free to reach out to engagement editor Jenn Smith, or check out the following pages to learn about the project: