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Too many of Washington state’s children are being left behind, sentenced by the shortcomings of our public-education system to a lifetime of low-wage jobs — if they can find work at all.

You’ve read the statistics. Nearly a quarter of the state’s eighth-graders enter high school with below-basic reading and math skills on national tests. One in five drops out before graduating. And among those who do finish high school, barely a third go directly to a four-year college.

As part of our long-standing commitment to covering education, The Seattle Times has reported vigorously on those issues. But it’s no longer enough just to point out the problems.

That’s why we’ve committed to spending the next year telling you about some of the places that appear to be doing things right. Our hope is that rigorously examining the elements of success might help spread them.

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Education Lab, a series we are kicking off this weekend, will take you into public-school classrooms, preschools and community colleges around Puget Sound and around the country. Our reporters will focus on approaches that show promise in addressing some of the most persistent challenges facing public education.

The project, produced in partnership with the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, isn’t about advocating for any particular policy or model of learning. We’ll use all of our reporting tools — from data analysis to on-the-ground investigations — to explain what the successful schools are doing and how they were able to do it.

Reporter Claudia Rowe examines how White Center Heights Elementary School in South King County, a low-income school with some of the region’s lowest test results, made remarkable headway in a single year — and whether its approach is applicable in other schools.

By shifting the focus from problems to potential fixes, Education Lab may, we hope, shift the often-polarized public conversation around how we teach our children.

This is an experiment for us and for our partner, the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization run by experienced journalists who promote rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

This is the most ambitious project SJN has undertaken. The nonprofit aims to apply some of the lessons we learn working together to reporting done at other news organizations across the country.

Funding for this project is provided by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Seattle Times is receiving $426,000 to support expanded education reporting and community engagement efforts.

We know that grant funding raises questions, particularly because the Seattle-based Gates Foundation has had a prominent advocacy role in pushing for sometimes controversial education reforms. But there are no strings attached to what we report and how we report it. Neither foundation will review any material we produce, from assignments to completed stories, before publication.

While this is the largest grant The Seattle Times has received, foundation grants are not new to us — or to other newsrooms.

As any public-radio listener knows, philanthropic organizations have helped finance National Public Radio’s journalistic endeavors for years. And as commercial news organizations have looked for ways to replace traditional advertising revenue, foundation grants have helped fill the gap.

The Ford Foundation, for example, gave the Los Angeles Times $1 million last year to expand coverage of key beats, including Southeast Asian immigrant communities, the border region and Brazil. Gates has funded projects from numerous media organizations, including NBC, The Guardian and public radio.

So far this year, The Seattle Times has accepted grants from three other foundations to help pay for our coverage of environmental issues affecting oceans, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and international social-justice issues.

All four grants enabled us to enhance our existing journalistic mission to cover significant issues of concern to Northwest readers through a Northwest lens. The terms of each grant safeguard our editorial independence.

One of the most exciting elements of the Education Lab project is that it will allow us to bring new voices — your voices — into the conversation around education in an unprecedented way.

We’ve hired a community engagement editor, Caitlin Moran, to help us set up public forums and to create partnerships with community organizations involved in education issues. She also will edit a new blog created for this project, which will showcase discussions on education topics and give you opportunities to weigh in and get involved.

We believe the next year will be provocative and exciting as we attempt to kick-start a new conversation about how we can do a better job of educating our children. The stakes couldn’t be higher. We hope you’ll join in.

Kathy Best: kbest@seattletimes.com

206-464-3337

On Twitter: @kbest