Educational effort deserved better introduction to media

There’s a distinction to be drawn between a new initiative to improve public education in Mesa County and the way in which the effort was brought to the attention of news media.

The 500 Plan, an effort involving the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and Mesa County School District 51, seeks to recruit 500 volunteers to spend an hour a week tutoring elementary school students.

While the 500 Plan alone won’t develop a world-class education system, it offers one step toward that goal in increasing instructional time for students. Do the math: Multiply 500 volunteers by an hour a week over an eight-week quarter and the product is 4,000 additional hours of instruction per quarter at no additional cost to a budget-strapped school district. Just as important, the 500 Plan promotes community involvement in public education. The more time people spend in schools, they more likely they are to care about those schools. While it’s arguably problematic to ask small business owners struggling to survive a downturn to find one more hour a week, any effort that helps bridge the gap between what students know and what they need to know to succeed in the workplace benefits businesses over the long term.

It’s too bad a program so dependent on widespread community involvement wasn’t introduced in a manner encouraging more widespread media coverage.

The chamber and its Grand Junction Forum Committee, the group that helped develop the 500 plan, invited the media to a Sept. 2 event in which the plan was detailed and local business people were asked to participate. But that meeting occurred after the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel published a series of front-page stories about efforts to develop a world-class education system in Mesa County, including the efforts of the committee. By the way, Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton serves on the committee, as does retired Editor Denny Herzog.

The committee’s efforts weren’t necessarily secret. But they weren’t widely known, either, even to some prominent government officials and active chamber members. With limited resources, the Grand Valley Business Times couldn’t possibly have covered every meeting at which the initiative might have been discussed. However, in producing a focused content section on education for the Aug. 12-26 issue, the Business Times contacted Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber and a member of the Grand Junction Forum Committee, and Steve Schultz, superintendent of School District 51. Schwenke and Schultz talked a lot about how schools can better prepare students to succeed in the workplace, but failed to detail the specific initiative involving the chamber committee and school district to accomplish that goal.

It’d tough to criticize the Sentinel for publishing a scoop because the Business Times strives with every issue to offer news unavailable from other media. That’s the nature of a competitive news industry. Nonetheless, an initiative dependent on widespread community support should have been introduced to all news media outlets at the same time. That’s the best way to ensure the most widespread coverage that in turn informs the most people. Not everyone reads the Sentinel. The situation is all the more perplexing because the chamber usually does a good job of informing the media — all the media — about important events and issues.

Here’s hoping the 500 Plan succeeds as an educational initiative — despite the lesson in how not to handle media relations.