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A Crusader Well-Schooled in Education

Television: Journalist John Merrow turns his investigative eye on the Latino dropout rate in KCET's 'Lost in Translation.'

October 02, 1998|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

He's tall, TV-handsome and, though 57, fit and energetic enough to skate 20 miles whenever business trips take him outside his home in Manhattan. During an interview at Santa Monica's Shutters Hotel, his sharp features and thick shock of white hair turn heads. Think of a less frantic, less annoying Tom Snyder.

Yet, appearance aside, broadcast journalist John Merrow is an oddity in his field.

Among generalists, Merrow is an expert. He has an egghead degree--a PhD in education and social policy from Harvard University. And he's spent nearly 25 years producing and hosting documentaries, commentaries and interviews for public television and radio, addressing a single question: How well are society and its schools serving the nation's children?

Merrow's no academic--even though the names he drops in conversation are all university professors. Rather, he said over a beachside brunch of blueberry pancakes, "I think of myself primarily as a reporter."

But he's a reporter who is an advocate for strong public schools. And that's what keeps him on the beat as the nation's best-known education journalist--which is to say that he's not all that well-known at all.

"I want America to do a better job of living up to that ideal," he said. "School is where the society does make an effort . . . to give kids a fair shake. So, in that sense, it's very satisfying."

Plus, he said, "there's no end to the interesting stories."

Merrow's latest "interesting story" is a disturbing look at the 30% national dropout rate among Latino students, the fastest-growing demographic group in America. Called "Lost in Translation: Latinos, Schools and Society," the piece was shot entirely in Los Angeles. It airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

About half of the documentary focuses on the controversy in California over bilingual education, which has been more or less banned after voters last June approved Proposition 227.

But the rest of the hour shows that language deficits alone do not explain why Latino children leave school in greater numbers than do others. For two girls interviewed in a park, it was the emotional seductiveness of motherhood and the excitement of gang life that prompted them to drop out. When Merrow takes the viewer inside classrooms, however, it's clear that disorganized programs and poor-quality instruction also push some kids onto the streets.

Merrow Takes Camera Inside the Classroom

In one of the documentary's most powerful scenes, the camera goes inside a classroom at Menlo Avenue School near USC, where one-third of the teachers have not yet earned a teaching license. A fourth-grade girl says she's had four teachers that year, the first a policeman.

"He worked at night, so in the morning he came to sleep," the girl says.

"That tells you everything you need to know about a system that doesn't care," Merrow said. "TV captures that little girl's face."

Very little television journalism is about learning. It's about scandals, Merrow said. Or, on local channels, feel-good cheerleading. But Merrow tries to get to the heart of what differentiates schools that work well from those that don't, and he thinks that most have a long way to go. Even so, Merrow doesn't pretend to have all the answers--on screen or in person.

"I don't know what the right thing to do is, but I know you can't just say the schools will fix it or blame the kids," he said.

Merrow first worked as a reporter in Kansas. Later, he taught in New York City and federal prison and then went to Harvard. Next, he joined an education policy think tank in Washington, D.C. In 1974, he was assigned to produce a series of shows for the local public-radio station.

The first show featured experts sitting in a studio talking about school finance. "It was just the worst," he recalls. "I learned never to ever interview anyone in Washington."

In 1982, Merrow decided to switch to television, producing a series on the lives of children that was nominated for an Emmy Award. His first extensive exposure nationally came as a regular contributor of stories about education to "The McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour."

Three years ago, he formed his own production company, and a year after that, a group of foundations, led by the Ford Foundation, gave him $3 million. That was enough to keep him operating for three years and to allow him to spend most of his time on journalism.

Since then, Merrow's company--which now has 10 employees and new Manhattan offices--has produced reports on charter schools, the effectiveness of different instructional methods in the primary grades and reform efforts underway in Philadelphia, among other topics. Three years ago, the company exposed how drug companies' marketing efforts are causing more kids to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.

"That changed the landscape for us," Merrow said. Yet "it's still a battle to get on TV. There's a lot of lip service paid to education."

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