- Alison Novak teaching at Lawrence Barnes Elementary in 2009
Before she started writing about schools for Seven Days, Alison Novak worked in them. Postcollege, she spent a year teaching English to kindergartners in Thailand. She liked it enough to earn a master's degree in education back in the U.S., through a program that put her in a classroom in the Bronx. Teaching third and fourth graders in an under-resourced, underperforming urban public school was "eye-opening," Alison says.
After three and a half years, she and her husband, Jeff, moved to Vermont, where education jobs were scarce in 2004. Alison worked for a year as a permanent sub at Burlington's J.J. Flynn Elementary School before a job opened up at what is now the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes. She was two years in, teaching fourth and fifth graders, when she had her first child.
By then, Jeff had become a public school teacher, too. Inspired by his wife's work, he left a career in advertising, got certified at the University of Vermont and took a job teaching language arts to middle school students in Sheldon. He commuted for four years until a position opened up closer to home, at South Burlington's Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School. The Novaks had a second child, and in 2012 Alison gave up work in schools to raise their kids, now ages 12 and 14.
All those experiences inform her education reporting, which started as a part-time job as the calendar writer at Kids VT, our parenting publication; two years later, she became its managing editor. During the pandemic, she moved to a full-time gig on the Seven Days news team, covering Vermont schools.
The timing was perfect. Prior to March 2020, we struggled as a newspaper to write about K-12 education in a way that readers could relate to. Just penetrating the bureaucracy and jargon takes passion and perseverance; so does explaining to childless readers why they should care.
A lot has changed in the past two years. Vermont's disrupted schools offer the most obvious evidence of the pandemic's toll and, in some cases, have become cultural conflict zones. Quietly and competently, Alison started documenting it all, finding and writing stories about the impacts of the coronavirus — changing protocols, the challenges of remote learning, struggling childcare programs, staff shortages — as well as racial tensions on the playing field and in the virtual teachers' lounge.
Her cover story this week looks at the deepening divides within Vermont's once civil nonpartisan school boards. An alarming number of them are fighting over school mascots, critical race theory and flags. People who never cared a wit about local schools are competing for seats.
You can tell from the story's thoroughness and depth of reporting that Alison does her homework, a lesson she learned long ago. One she's picked up more recently: When interviewing people, "sometimes I do slip in the fact that I was a teacher, my husband's a teacher, and ... that gives me a little bit of a leg up in terms of people being willing to talk to me," she says. "They know that I understand."
Official statements from higher-ups aren't the end of the story for this educator-turned-journalist. For her, "it's really important to talk to people who are on the ground, doing the work."