Journalist critic writes her way into role as reformer

20th December 1996 at 00:00
When the Chicago public schools were stung by a series of critical newspaper stories, officials took what they decided was the fastest route to solving the problems: they hired the reporter.

The journalist who covered the schools from the outside has been given sweeping powers on the inside to reform them.

"It's a reporter's fantasy," said Maribeth Vander Wheele, a former education writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, who was appointed head of the system's new office of investigations. "I get to take all the things I think are wrong and change them."

Vander Wheele's four full-time and 15 part-time investigators already have opened 1,500 cases involving employee misconduct alone. She has discovered financial irregularities, bribery, fraud, child molestation and millions of dollars in overcharges.

"People ask me if it was really as bad as I thought, and I tell them, it was worse," Vander Wheele said.

But she is also involved in making policy decisions. Every day she meets the school superintendent and his other top department heads and complained so much about truancy that she was given responsibility for catching truants.

She helped write an ethics policy, devise a mandatory summer school programme for low-achieving learners and automated attendance records for the city's 420,000 students.

Vander Wheele's exposes on Chicago schools were compiled into the 1993 work Reclaiming Our Schools. For her first story at the Sun-Times, she visited a dilapidated local high school with holes in the ceiling and water running down the walls. Her subsequent investigations detailed classrooms without teachers, contract fraud, waste and kickbacks.

"My philosophy was that exposing the problem is the first step in solving it," she said.

When the mayor and his new reform-minded superintendent offered Vander Wheele the job of chief investigator in America's third-biggest school system, she hesitated only briefly. "I looked for hidden agendas and I didn't find anything," she said. "They knew I couldn't be compromised."

Once inside, she found that many of her old reporting tricks continued to be helpful. Getting documents and asking questions, for example, came naturally.

Her tools now also include surveillance cameras and anonymous informants and her investigators are retired and off-duty police detectives.

She also wants to hire other seasoned news reporters because, she says, "they understand deadlines".

Now that she is inside the establishment, Vander Wheele said, she sometimes questions the fairness of what other journalists report about the schools - but not their right to cover them critically.

"I think if the media didn't exist, what we're doing now would not have happened. The exposes year after year after year finally did make an impact, " she said.

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