The Better Government Association has won a national education reporting award for its series “The Graduates*,” an investigation into questionable graduation rates touted by City Colleges of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The Education Writers Association awarded the BGA’s special projects editor, David Kidwell, top honors for the series, which was named the best investigative reporting for general news outlets in the small staff category. It was published by Crain’s Chicago Business.

The series is the BGA’s second national award for its work in 2017. BGA reporters also won the National Press Foundation’s 2017 Thomas L. Stokes Award for Best Energy Writing for “Power Struggle,” its three-part series on nuclear safety in Illinois and across the nation.

“The Graduates*” exposed how Emanuel’s much-touted “reinvention” of City Colleges was largely an illusion. The investigation found that since 2010 City Colleges watered down its curriculum, violated its own rules on what constitutes a degree, changed the way it counts statistics and bestowed thousands of degrees — sometimes in multiples to the same person — to current and former students who in many cases neither requested nor wanted them. It also exposed how one City Colleges campus won a national minority achievement prize by using manipulated data. All this was done as enrollment at the schools tanked and raised serious questions about Emanuel’s national efforts to push City Colleges as a model for community college reform.

One EWA judge described the work as “fantastic, investigative, public service journalism” while another said, “This excellent investigation of cynical manipulation of data and degree requirements to enhance a 2-year college system’s academic profile … is undergirded by records requests, extensive interviews and sophisticated data analysis.”

David Kidwell.jpg
BGA reporter David Kidwell.

“This is important work that is at the core of our mission of transparency, efficiency, and accountability in government. It is an honor to see it recognized by the EWA,” said BGA President and CEO David Greising. “Our investigator, David Kidwell, sifted through graduation data and built relationships with sources to find that the graduation rates City Colleges of Chicago was touting, weren’t adding up. Dave’s reporting, supported by the powerful graphic representation our data team produced, is the kind of high-impact work the BGA produces and the City of Chicago needs.”

Other finalists for this award were The Chicago Reporter for its investigation about Chicago’s mass school closures, and their surprising (and, in many cases, troubling) impacts on families, student achievement, and campus diversity; and Chalkbeat for its eye-opening investigation into Indiana’s virtual schools, uncovering allegations of misspent funds and failures to adhere to state regulations for teacher staffing and student oversight.

The awards competition was independently judged by more than 60 current and former editors and reporters, many of them past award-winners. The top-prize winners were selected by the combined scores of more than a dozen final-round judges.

The mission of the Education Writers Association is to strengthen the community of education writers and improve the quality of education coverage to better inform the public.

“EWA is thrilled to recognize these exceptional stories and their important contributions to the conversation on education,” said Caroline Hendrie, EWA’s executive director about the 2017 finalists. “Their work exemplifies the very best of our field as well as our collective commitment to journalism as a public service.”

The BGA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.

Other Recent BGA Awards

“The Graduates*” also was honored with two Peter Lisagor Awards by the Chicago Headline Club, the largest Society of Professional Journalists chapter in the nation, for best in-depth reporting and best illustration, which was done by the BGA’s VP of Strategy, Solomon Lieberman.

Andy Shaw, the BGA’s president emeritus, also won a Lisagor Award for best news column or commentary in a non-daily newspaper or magazine.

BGA’s “Power Struggle” series, which was reported and written by Brett Chase and Madison Hopkins, received a Herman Kogan Media Award from the Chicago Bar Association. The series received a meritorious achievement award in the online news category. 

BGA reporter Katie Drews and Sun-Times reporter Lauren FitzPatrick won the enterprise reporting category of the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors 2017 newspaper contest for their story on 14-year-old Rosario Gomez, a Chicago Public School high school student with autism who drowned in a crowded school pool during a gym class.