‘Icon’ of independent journalism on Philly schools prepares to step down

 Paul Socolar, who founded the Philadelphia Public School Notebook in 1994, will step down in 2015. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Paul Socolar, who founded the Philadelphia Public School Notebook in 1994, will step down in 2015. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A titan of Philadelphia’s independent journalism scene is stepping down. Paul Socolar, editor, publisher and co-founder of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook will leave the influential publication in late 2015.

A former public school parent, Socolar helped launch the outlet as a free, independent quarterly newspaper in 1994. At the time, he was just shy of 40 years old, with two young daughters, 9 and 6.

“It struck me that a newspaper – and there were a couple of examples of this in other cities – could be a way of ramping up the ability of people like me, parents, concerned people across the city, to deal with the issues in the school system,” said Socolar in an interview Friday at the Notebook’s Center City headquarters.

Though his daughters were able to get “a pretty darn good education going through some of the better [district] schools in the city,” Socolar became increasingly dismayed by the inequities of the system overall.

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“We were really trying to address the fundamental issue of how a system like this can live out the promise of public education being a provider of equal opportunity across the board,” he said.

But, 21 years later, Socolar said many of the problems that festered in 1994 still remain. “It’s still, unfortunately, an inequitable system,” he said. “Particularly for students of color.”

He added, though, “There’s much more of an understanding, I think, of the limitations, the challenges, and the struggles that the school system has.”

The Notebook’s website has become a go-to resource for daily news, commentary and discussion about Philadelphia’s schools.

“Socolar will leave the Notebook as a sustainable, highly respected organization with a strong, engaged board; an experienced seven-person staff of talented and committed individuals; robust partnerships with other media organizations; and a diverse revenue base of members, donors, sponsors, and advertisers – a model for successful community-based nonprofit journalism,” said the Notebook’s official release.

Socolar, 59, studied journalism in high school and college, but worked largely for nonprofits through his 20s and 30s. Socolar, who took the helm of the publication in 1999, believes the Notebook has raised the bar for education coverage citywide.

“We elevate each other’s game by pursuing these stories,” he said. “The Notebook has given the whole field of education news in the area a big boost.”

As a content partner of WHYY/NewsWorks, the Notebook has bolstered the depth and breadth of our coverage of Philadelphia’s public school parents, students, teachers, leaders and stakeholders.

A Notebook/NewsWorks story in 2011 uncovered Pennsylvania’s widespread standardized test-cheating scandal, where adults changed students’ answer sheets.

“He had an idea to do something useful that no one else was doing. He pursued it with amazing dedication and doggedness, and, in the end, he made his city better,” said Chris Satullo, WHYY’s vice president for news and civic dialogue. “I just admire the guy tremendously.”

The announcement of Socolar’s departure elicited reaction from many who follow Philadelphia’s education scene closely.

“The Notebook is a great resource for those on the outside of the state-run school district looking in, including City Council members and staff,” said City Council President Darrell Clarke.

“This is service journalism that holds teachers and staff to account while humanizing them, rather than provoking outsiders to quick judgment. Those of us who care deeply about our public schools, and the mission of giving every child equal opportunity to succeed, owe a great debt to Paul,” Clarke continued.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, called Socolar “an icon for transparency.”

“Under his leadership, the Notebook grew to become what it is today — a go-to source for news on issues facing our city’s schools, and an independent voice for parents and students,” she said.

City Council candidate Helen Gym was part of the group that helped Socolar found the publication.

“Paul has guided the Notebook through some of the most dramatic periods of education reform in Philadelphia,” she said. “His commitment to quality journalism and investigative reporting into the realities and consequences of that reform movement is a major reason why the public in Philadelphia is so much better informed than other cities.”

The School District of Philadelphia itself paid its respects.

“Paul is extremely knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the district,” said spokesman Fernando Gallard, a 12-year district veteran. “He has a level of interest – a level of care – that goes beyond that of a beat reporter, centered in his experience as a father.”

“He’s earned the respect of all the senior leadership of those I’ve served with,” Gallard continued. “He’s tenacious and persistent in regards to getting to the facts, and always looks at what’s going on behind the numbers.”

After he departs, Socolar hopes to stay involved in the field of public-interest investigative journalism. He also intends to spend more time with his parents, both in their 90s, who live in New York City, where he was raised.

A successor has not yet been chosen, but Socolar says his team will perform a national search for candidates for the editor/publisher position. A new organizational leader will be in place by the fall, he said.

“Everybody in the journalism world is dealing with this basic issue of how to pay for good investigative reporting,” said Socolar. “We’ve been able to do that for 20 years, by hook or by crook.”

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