Journalism is described as many things: the Fourth Estate, the watchdog, the gatekeeper, etc.
For award-winning journalist Jill Tucker, it’s a little more than that.
“Most of us go into journalism because we feel it’s a noble endeavor,” said the San Francisco Chronicle reporter. “We want to participate in passing along information so people can make decisions about what needs to happen or what needs to change.”
Tucker has covered education in California for nearly 18 years. In that time, she has embarked on many noble journalistic endeavors.
Among those is “Even Odds,” a series which highlights the statistical comparison of African American males in Oakland who fell victim to homicide versus those who graduated high school and were eligible for enrollment at a University of California or California State University school from 2002 to 2012. What the story uncovered was unsettling.
In that decade, 787 black males were killed in a homicide while just 802 graduated “college-ready.”
“That was the story I always wanted to write but could never find a way to do it,” Tucker said. “Year after year I reported on the horrifying statistics associated with black males in schools. Whether I was writing about test scores or dropout rates it was always, always, always black males at the bottom.”
She describes people as having developed “statistics fatigue,” a sort of immunity or numbness to the numbers being reported over and over.
And so she set out over the course of a school year to tell this story in a different way.
The end result was a three-part series which documented the accounts of male African American students in Oakland, their fear and struggles and the efforts set in place to impact their paths in positive ways and alter the statistics.
“We weren’t necessarily trying to solve the problem. It really was to get people to view these kids in a different light; to stop seeing them as ‘animals’–as the superintendant said–or as statistics or as something scary, but to see them as kids again,” she said.
This humanization of issues in education has in some ways characterized Tucker’s career.
In 2003 she wrote a series called “Separate and Unequal” which profiled the day-in-a-life of two middle school students: one in Oakland and one in Pleasanton.
It brought attention to the near-$30,000 disparity between state expenditure on the Oakland student’s teachers and the Pleasanton’s, so much so it spurred California legislation.
In September of 2005, SB 687 was signed into law, requiring the state’s school districts to submit spending reports. It was named after the Oakland student Tucker profiled, Gerry Silva.
In December of 2011 she wrote another piece which would spark change – a story on the issue of homeless students in San Francisco public schools. Tucker told the story through the eyes of 10-year-old Rudy Nguyen, one of more than 2,000 homeless students in the city at that time.
A few days after the story ran, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff and wife Lynne donated $1.5 million to efforts to place homeless families in public or subsidized housing before the holidays. The city matched the couple’s contribution, making it $3 million which would house as many as 200 families, according to one report.
“She spends a lot of time with the kids she writes about and their families,” said Tucker’s colleague Erin Allday.
“It’s not just talking to teachers and getting a couple of good students that are an example of what’s going on, which is pretty common,” Allday continued. “But it’s the investment in really getting to know these kids and getting to know what else is going on in their lives that sets her apart.”
The two have known each other for more than a decade, having met while covering education for the then-Alameda News Group (now Bay Area News Group) in the late-90s and early 2000s before eventually moving on to the Chronicle.
The news group published the Oakland Tribune, where Tucker’s work was printed and would catch the eye of Nanette Asimov, a higher education reporter for the Chronicle. When her publication was looking for a new K-12 reporter, Asimov thought of Tucker.
“I didn’t know her that well but I had read her stuff in the Oakland Tribune and I thought it was terrific,” she said.
Tucker found her new desk at the Chronicle right next to Asimov’s, where the two continue to work alongside one another.
Asimov speaks to Tucker’s “kindred spirit” and her ability to connect with people.
“She could talk to the governor or a custodian at a school and they’ll feel like she is their best friend,” Asimov said. “They’ll open up to her and they’ll talk to her. She’s funny and fantastic and they realize that right away from the warm tone of her voice.”
While Tucker does not take credit for the changes sparked by her work, she is proud that her stories have “made people care.”
“My goal is to make people laugh or cry or get off the couch or make a phone call or write a letter – anything but apathy,” she said.