On journalism, education reform, and a Lerner 555 Bat Mitzvah.
By Sylvie Epstein
Not long ago, our magazine was exclusively a print publication. The Blue and White would arrive on campus tri-semesterly in its classic cobalt lettering, and undergrads would peruse our stories on the physical page. In those days, Bwog was our online persona, our more tech savvy sibling. And from 2010-2011, The New York Times’ Eliza Shapiro, CC ’12, ran that web machine. But she also attended Blue and White meetings, writing several pieces printed in blue. She is a magazine alumna, and for that we are proud.
As an undergrad, Shapiro’s coverage of Columbia’s attempt to increase its status as a research-oriented institution and her subsequent investigation of Harvard’s mental health crisis for The Daily Beast (her first job post-graduation) foreshadowed her current post as an education reporter for The New York Times. Shapiro left Columbia with an open mind, ready to report breaking news in a moment’s notice and to cover whatever was asked of her. When I spoke with her on a Tuesday in early April, she told me the story of her last eleven years in the world of journalism. Those earliest days at The Daily Beast, her initial, random assignment of the education beat at Politico, and her 2018 welcome to the Times, have helped Shapiro become a preeminent expert on the ins and outs of city politics and schools. Yet she remembers her days as a student journalist at Columbia, fondly characterizing Bwog and The Blue and White as “really good preparation” for what was to come.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
. . .
The Blue and White: I was wondering if you could tell me more about your experience at Bwog and doing certain student journalism while you were here.
Eliza Shapiro: I would say Bwog is the thing that really, really set me up to be a professional journalist. I was extremely focused on Bwog and The Blue and White when I was at Columbia. I barely had enough classes to have a major in history; I was really, really focused on being a student journalist. And, I actually didn’t even anticipate at the time how helpful it would be for me in my career as a journalist.
I just got really, really obsessed with thinking about how to make Bwog something that everyone on campus would want to read. I was really obsessed with audience and thinking about our audience as the undergraduate community of Columbia. And I feel like sometimes when there was an attempt to broaden that, the stories actually became less interesting to students, so I was laser focused on thinking about what people actually wanted to read. We amped up the number of posts, we tried to do more features stuff, we did a little bit more investigative stuff: There was a big drug bust during the year that I was Bwog editor. We really ran into that and covered it really intensively. I think I was really, really ambitious about what the site could do.
Also, running Bwog really helped me think about how to write for an online publication or how to understand the internet. Bwog comments were always infamous for being really nasty. And I spent years responding to commenters personally. I got to know some people and we had events where we showed that we were real people and went out on the lawns and people came and met us. So, yeah, I was really, really ambitious with it and had so much fun.
B&W: What was The Blue and White and Bwog’s relationship at the time you were here?
ES: We would typically go to both meetings. If there was a big Blue and White story, we would post it on Bwog. I wrote for The Blue and White as well. So it was pretty close.
B&W: What do you think your favorite piece was that you worked on while at Bwog either as editor or writer?
ES: I got really interested during my time at Columbia in how the University was kind of setting itself up to compete with an average graduate in 2012. It was a time where Stanford was kind of becoming a dominant university because the tech industry was exploding, and I feel like Columbia was kind of undergoing a sort of an existential crisis about the value of sticking to the Core Curriculum and being a liberal arts school, a liberal arts Ivy.
So I wrote one big story during my time at The Blue and White about Columbia’s future, and I spoke to a number of professors and really thought about how Bollinger was trying to push the school to be more competitive with the other big tech and science schools and how it was sort of this personality crisis for the school.
B&W: I saw excerpts of that piece online with Professor Delbanco. I actually took a class with him. He’s awesome. I feel like he’s still thinking about the same types of questions.
ES: Yeah, I doubt it’s resolved at all.
B&W: You were working on that piece, and then, at The Daily Beast you wrote a big piece about the Harvard mental health crisis. Do you feel like you were starting to sow the seeds of your interest in education journalism at that point?
ES: Oh, totally. You know, what’s interesting is that I have been an education reporter for 10 years, and I’ve always been interested in it, but I kind of stumbled into being an education reporter. It was somewhat random. My boss basically assigned it to me when I was at Politico on my first day of my job. And I was like “oh, that sounds great.” I hadn’t even thought about it. So it wasn’t necessarily what I was pushing for. But because I had spent so much time thinking about internal Columbia politics and some time at Harvard thinking about their mental health stuff (which obviously has just exploded for all universities in the last few years), it was a good fit. But it was actually kind of random.
B&W: What did it feel like when you started to narrow in on that beat at Politico and have this focus that you hadn’t had earlier? What was the difference there versus in your earlier positions?
ES: I had so much fun learning about the New York City public school system. You know, it’s the biggest school system in the country, it’s incredibly complex, [has] endless stories, and it was just kind of unraveling all these threads that I was really interested in. I spent years focused on the charter school movement in New York. I spent other years focused on issues of racial segregation in the public schools. I’ve now spent years looking at the lack of education in Hasidic Jewish private schools. I feel like there’s all these different parts of the system that I’ve come to really understand. I think the best thing that I did was try to know what was going on with everything, cover everything, but have areas of focus that I could really kind of dominate as a reporter, and I feel like that really paid off for me.
B&W: I am a history major and a minor in education studies and I also was a New York City public school student myself. And I’m really interested in thinking about issues of access and racial segregation in New York City public schools. I read your piece about the Upper West Side’s resistance to integration from 2016. I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about that, and the way that you think the landscape has changed and not changed since then.
What do you think the biggest obstacles are that we're looking at post-Covid when trying to integrate New York City schools? And how do you see white resistance playing out currently?
ES: It’s really interesting. I think in that time, maybe 2016 to 2019, there was a lot of momentum around thinking about solutions for integration, thinking about different ways that kids could access the city’s elite public high schools, and in some cases, elementary schools, in some districts across the city. I feel like that momentum has really stalled. There’s not much policy right now aimed at any kind of structural integration of this system. There are some districts that are continuing with small-scale, really interesting programs to integrate a collection of their elementary schools or middle schools. There hasn’t been a ton of progress on high schools generally, not just specialized high schools. And I do feel like the current mayor is just less interested, it’s not really a priority for him and his team. So I feel like that momentum has been really stalled in the last two, three years.
B&W: What do you see as the best ways to try and drum up momentum and get people thinking about integrating schools? I know that there’s been barriers to success with current attempts, like the District 15 plan, that have not created as much change as people were hoping for. How do you sort of convince people it’s still worth trying for?
ES: You know, I’m definitely not an activist. I feel my reporting is to point to research showing that integration, if done well, can be used as a school improvement plan. Obviously, there’s a lot of schools in New York City that are struggling or have fewer resources than others, and what has interested me most about the project of integration is that it’s a way to improve schools across the board.
But in terms of the activist movement, that’s kind of their business, I would say. But yeah, I think there was a lot of youth-led activism which was really interesting, and some of those groups are going through periods of recalibrating their strategies at the moment. So it’s just not that front and center.
B&W: In a broader scope, how would you characterize the role of journalists in the education reform landscape? What do your interactions look like if you are interacting with policymakers or activists while you're reporting? But also how do you think journalism and reporting itself plays a role in making change?
ES: I would say the most important thing for journalists is to understand that they are not
there to take a side or advance a certain narrative at the expense of another one. I think my interactions have been trying to deeply understand that there are so many very contentious and emotional debates in New York City education politics—charter schools are a great example–and I feel like what I’ve tried to do over the years is deeply understand both sides of a very polarized argument and try to highlight [them], both in profiles and features and investigative work, so that the reader has enough information to make up their own mind.
B&W: Absolutely. I’m interested in your coverage of the effects of Covid on schooling. During the pandemic a lot of deeply-entrenched problems with our schools, about homelessness, etc., as you as you reported on, were exposed and brought front and center. In a similar way to what you’re saying about the city losing momentum on integration, do you feel like some of those problems that you wrote about and that were being talked about during the height of the pandemic have since been sidelined?
ES: I do. I think there was this moment in a lot of parts of city life, not just education but certainly including the public school system, where people sort of thought this was a time to reimagine some aspects of the system that were stuck or broken or seemed really unfair. And I just think the problem is that the city also had to get everyone back into the school buildings, so the projects of simply reopening the schools safely and reimagining some core aspects of how the school system works was too much. Certainly for the former mayor and the current mayor, some people would call it a failure of imagination, but I also know from covering it firsthand that the actual work to just get the schools open again was completely, 100% consuming, and could have easily not happened as successfully as it did.
But I mean, listen, the kids are back, right? Schools are open, things are sort of back to normal, and there’s still really not conversations happening at [the] City Hall level about how to transform the system to make it fairer for kids. That’s definitely not happening. In fact, there’s not actually a ton of particularly notable policy coming from this administration at the moment. It’s still an early time in the life of this administration, but there’s not a lot going on that you could say “oh, wow,” this is really going to change how the system works.
B&W: Okay, so you’ve been writing mostly about Hasidic schools in the city these days. How did you initially land on that topic and what drew you to it? And also what has it been like to cover something in such a long term, unfolding way?
ES: Yeah, this has been very different for me because I kind of stepped off of the day-to-day work of the beat for a few years to really focus on this big investigative target. So I had been covering, for a few years, sporadically, complaints from former Yeshiva students who went to Hasidic schools that they really didn’t get an adequate education in English or math, and that they were basically learning exclusively religious texts in Yiddish all day, which seemed to violate state laws requiring every school to offer kids a basic secular education.
In late 2019, the City Department of Education had released a very long delayed report based on their investigation into these schools that found that only two of the 28 schools that they investigated were complying with state law and offering a basic secular education. The fact that the report was released right at the end of the year before Christmas, that city officials were very cagey about it, that the schools themselves were not named was very odd, and so I felt like the city was not being upfront about the full scope of what they found. I was a beat reporter, so I partnered with an investigative reporter, and I said, “let’s try to find out what’s actually happening in these schools and how much money they get from the government.” Because it’s completely unknown. We couldn’t figure it out, it wasn’t publicly available. So that kind of snowballed into a much bigger project as we talked to more and more people and realized that the schools were getting enormous sums of money from the government, much more than we had anticipated, and that the problems in the schools were much deeper than we had understood from our early reporting. There was corporal punishment going on, some kids were leaving school barely able to write or speak a sentence in English. The more we reported, the bigger the story got.
B&W: Working on a project that has so many different pieces: That’s an experience I feel like we don’t really have as student journalists here. While you’re doing the investigating, how do you get to a point where you decide for yourself, this is enough, this one piece of information, this part of the story, is enough for a piece itself, I’m gonna sit down and write now and send it out?
ES: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s always the risk that you can keep reporting forever, because there’s always a new source to meet or new documents to find. There was a lot there, but I think we reached a point where we had spoken to hundreds of people and we had become really familiar with a typical experience of a boy in the schools. We were hearing very, very similar stories to a point where we felt confident. We realized, okay, this is a clear, clear pattern of what’s happening. We’d also spoken to a number of people who had graduated very recently, or parents of kids who are currently in the schools, so we really felt confident that the lack of education, the corporal punishment, was happening in real time.
Once we felt like we had enough sources and that our sources were painting a clear picture for us, that our sources came from all different schools and weren’t connected to each other, and represented a really big swath of the Hasidic school system, that’s when we started to write.
B&W: So interesting. And while you’d been working on this piece, how much availability and mental space did you have to be thinking about other future projects or things that you want to work on on the side?
ES: I would say none. This has been my complete and singular focus for two and a half years.
B&W: And do you feel like after doing that you prefer this type of work to the more daily beat?
ES: It’s a good question. I think I would probably like a mix going forward. It’s hard to not be writing. It’s hard to miss news. You kind of see big stories going by as you’re working on this even bigger story. So I think I would like a mix of some longer term features and investigative stuff, but I don’t want to fully take my eye off a beat.
B&W: You landed on education sort of randomly, as you said. But what advice would you give to people graduating, having written for Bwog or The Blue and White, who feel like they do have a narrow focus and interest and want to go into journalism?
ES: I would actually caution against that in the early part of your career. I was a general assignment reporter for a year and a half when I left college, and just being able to write a lot of different types of stories is the best experience for becoming a beat reporter. You have to learn to write really quickly if you’re a beat reporter, as well. So you have to cover breaking news in order to do that. I wrote profiles, I wrote features. I think the best thing to do is write a lot of different types of stories before you narrow in on something. Just learn how to do this stuff.
B&W: I read your senior wisdom on the Bwog website: So first, as you were graduating, you warned the class of 2016 against preemptive nostalgia. I’m a graduating senior so that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about and feel like I’ve been a victim of, or maybe I haven’t resisted it enough. I’m wondering if that's advice that you still stand by. How would you advise that graduating seniors avoid it in the last weeks of college? What’s a better way to spend our time?
ES: I just feel like I had so much fun at the end. I mean, it’s very cliche advice. But I do think if you try to have fun, and not think about the fact that it’s all going to end and just be grateful for your time with your friends, I think that will probably do the trick.
B&W: Yes. That makes a lot of sense.
I want to know a little bit about your Lerner 555 Bat Mitzvah.
ES: So funny. Yeah. My dad is a professor at Columbia and we basically got a discount on using Lerner as a party space. And obviously, when I was 12, I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that it was a college space essentially, but it ended up being a really, really good place to have all my little 12-year-old friends. And, you know, it’s a nice building.
B&W: That’s so funny. I was picturing a Hillel-sponsored Bat Mitzvah while in college.
Anyway, I have really loved reading your pieces over the years. I feel like reading about education was the beginning of my interest in education reform.
ES: I think education is just an incredibly rich topic that it’s really hard to ever tire of, right?
You’re always reaching for better solutions, knowing that nothing will ever be perfect, that it’s really, really hard, if not impossible to vanquish inequality in the system, but there are so many ways to go about it, and to think about making things better for kids. So I think it’s very easy to fill a lifetime of work thinking about this. As a reporter, it’s just been an incredibly intellectually rigorous challenge for me. Writing [about] education and trying to think about both sides of every topic really pushed my thinking in ways that I hadn’t ever been before. Obviously at Columbia, you do some of that, but doing it in the real world was different for me and one of the things I’m most grateful for in my time covering education is how much it actually really did challenge my assumptions. I feel like that made my reporting a lot stronger.