In Newton, Kansas, less than 3 percent of teachers are non-white, while the student body is 38 percent non-white. For reporters at The Newton Kansan, this discrepancy is an essential story for their community – and one they believe every community newspaper should be tracking.
The idea of writing about the racial breakdown of Newton was something reporter Chad Frey had long wanted to tackle, and that seed of an idea lived on The Kansan’s “grandiose ideas” board at the back of the newsroom. “I always wondered what it would be like if we looked at who’s teaching our kids,” Frey said.
Unsure of how to get started, Frey began attending racial justice meetings in the community and learning from his neighbors “what it’s like living in Newton while not white.” The stories he heard left an impression on him, and he realized that many of the stories about segregation and racial inequality in Newton were from decades earlier and people with firsthand experience of modern racism weren’t seeing their stories told.
When the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision approached, the state of Kansas reached out to newsrooms asking for stories about integration in the decades since the landmark case. Frey knew he had his hook – he partnered with colleague Kelly Breckunitch to tackle it. “It seemed like a natural fit when you talk about Brown v. Board of Ed.,” Frey said of the story.
Unlike other cities in Kansas, Frey explained, “Newton has a population of 20,000, so it didn’t have the money for segregated schools [in the 1960s]. But while we were never ‘segregated,’ there was segregation.”
When Frey and Breckunitch began digging into the situation, they found that during the 2018-2019 school year, 97 percent of the staff of the Newton School District was white, while more than 30 percent of the students were non-white. As they noted in their article, “There are 15 building administrators and only one of those is African American. Only one is Hispanic. Out of more than 300 teachers reported, only three are African American and two are Hispanic.”
Even with the obvious importance of the story, Frey said tackling such a big issue wasn’t easy. He turned to community members regularly for help understanding the various points of view in his town and how to cover such a hot-button issue. He looked to neighbors and friends to help him understand the institutional racism inherent in even non-segregated schools, and how he could tactfully approach these subjects as a person speaking from a place of privilege.
But Frey also wanted to be sensitive because he lives and works in a very small community. “I have three kids in the school system, and I would lay awake at night wondering how a story like this would impact them,” he said. “Stories like this are tough when you really are part of the community.”
Frey worked through his anxieties by spending extra time working on the story – he started showing up to the office 10 minutes earlier and set aside time whenever the opportunity presented itself. It also allowed him to break up the emotional drain of such a complex story.
“I’ve covered a mass shooting, and while that was emotionally draining, it wasn’t hard because people wanted to talk,” Frey said. This story, he noted, was harder because “I knew people didn’t want to talk about this.”
Still, Frey and Breckunitch worked until they had more than 100 inches of copy for their editors to review. The Kansan’s editors were so supportive of the story that instead of putting it on the front page of the paper, it was published in full on the paper’s website and shared in the state’s special education section for the Brown v. Board of Education anniversary.
When The Kansan story was published, the response was immediate. People from the Newton Community for Racial Justice, with whom Frey had worked closely in order to understand the experience of people of color in Newton, “were glad [The Kansan] was having this conversation.”
A neighbor of Frey’s who is part of a mixed-race family said she was “happy someone would stand up for her son]” and represent his experience.
But the biggest impact, for Frey, was seeing an 18-year-old black community member decide to run for a seat on the school board. “The story made him mad and he wanted to do something about it,” Frey said of the candidate. “I don’t think you can ask for a bigger impact than that.”
“I have done stories where people vandalized my car, threw things at my house – stories where I didn’t want to live here anymore,” Frey continued. “But I love my community. I fell in love with this place when I came here to go to college, and I feel like every story [I write] helps make the community stronger.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.