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With unbridled enthusiasm, School News Network founder showed ‘our public schools work’  

Retiring ‘queen of SNN’ reflects on Kent ISD news site’s success

Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Kent ISD — In Allison Kaufman’s first 10 years or so working in communications for Kent ISD, she often complained with her boss, Ron Koehler, about the dearth of thoughtful reporting on local schools. With recession-ripped, internet-gutted newspapers stripped to the bone in the late 2000s, school coverage too often focused on “somebody’s bad behavior,” she says, not on the daily business of K-12 teaching and learning. 

Meanwhile, cash-strapped school districts were forced to cut back on their communications people. What was going on in local classrooms? What were school boards deciding? The public, by and large, had no way of knowing.

As former reporters themselves, Kaufman and Koehler festered with frustration. 

“’We ought to start our own damn newspaper!’ We used to say that all the time,” Kaufman recalls, with characteristic high passion and buoyant humor.

Well, guess what: That’s exactly what they did, albeit without the paper.

It began with a school administrators conference in the fall of 2012, where education consultant John Draper urged them to begin telling their own districts’ stories. Local leaders came back to ask Koehler, then a Kent ISD assistant superintendent, how they could best do this. He brought their message to Kaufman, and the fire was lit. 

“I was like, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes! Yes, we are gonna do this!’” Kaufman exclaims, with a good hard slap on the table.

Thus was born the idea for School News Network, which tells the stories of daily education in Kent ISD’s 20 local school districts. Since its inception in 2013, SNN has told some 5,700 stories, attracted more than 1.5 million website interactions and now serves about 13,000 subscribers.

For Kaufman, it is the capstone of a career comprising equal parts education and journalism — and a source of pride and joy as she retires from Kent ISD.

“Everything I did before then really came together in School News Network, and all of the things I cared most about,” she says. “Our schools are better because of the stories in SNN.” 

A Job Fit for a Queen 

As founder of School News Network — or “the queen of SNN,” as this reporter likes to call her — Kaufman played a key role in educating readers about the daily workings of K-12 public schools, their value to communities and their students’ success stories. All were badly needed as state school funding dwindled and for-profit charter schools ascended, and Kaufman was perfect for the task, Koehler said.

“There was never a doubt that if you assigned something to her, she would do it well,” says Koehler, who also is retiring as superintendent of Kent ISD. “And that she would care about it as much as you did, or maybe more.”    

‘I was sure that once we had thousands of stories told by real journalists … that we would have irrefutable evidence that our public schools work.’

— Allison Kaufman, founder, School News Network 

With her extensive connections in Kent ISD, journalism background and “unbridled enthusiasm,” Kaufman was crucial in communicating the need for SNN, says Managing Editor Erin Albanese. With its unusual profile of being financially supported by Kent ISD and local districts, along with sponsorships, it was imperative to also establish SNN’s editorial independence, she said.

“She was always really good at explaining why it mattered, why people needed to have real journalists covering schools objectively,” says Albanese, who’s covered a dozen districts for SNN. “It had to be more than PR for people to take us seriously. … I’ve always felt like she had our back as journalists. She had a way of relationship-building that allowed us to do our jobs well while building strong partnerships with our districts.” 

That insistence on authentic journalism is why Kaufman from the outset sought out experienced reporters like Albanese, who covered several school districts for The Grand Rapids Press. I was also one of her original hires, after having been an education reporter and religion editor at The Press. Allison in effect gave me a second career as SNN’s editor-in-chief, following a mass buyout from The Press in 2009. 

“We needed journalists, not just good PR writers,” Kaufman says. “I was only interested in telling the truth.” 

Rooted in Education, Practiced in Journalism

The daughter of an elementary school teacher, Connie Ellison Young, in her hometown of Bath, Kaufman was a journalism major at Central Michigan University, where she worked at the Central Michigan Life student newspaper. She also earned a teaching certificate. 

After reporting for the Frankenmuth News, she worked for South Kent Community Education as a lead teacher for a program serving parenting and pregnant teens. After having a child of her own, Alana, she ran her own marketing, training and corporate communications company, and later consulted for Gerber and Davenport University, among other clients. 

Meanwhile, with a background in journalism and advertising, Koehler was hired as Kent ISD’s first communications director, in 1996. He in turn hired Kaufman as communications coordinator in 1999. It was a role for which her marketing and journalism skills were ideally suited, among other things bringing greater visibility and enrollment to the Kent Career Tech Center.  

“Her background and skills were perfect for what we needed,” Koehler says.

Kaufman and retiring Superintendent Ron Koehler enjoy a memory reflecting on their long history together at Kent ISD

They continued to work as a kind of dynamic duo after Koehler was appointed assistant superintendent, and later superintendent, while Kaufman headed up communications. Over time, as the twin perils of reduced state funding and local reporting took their toll on local districts, they worked with an advisory group of superintendents to launch School News Network in the spring of 2013.  

Boldly Advocating for Public Schools

Under Kaufman’s determined leadership, SNN grew from a shoestring outfit of a few reporters to a robust enterprise of a dozen full- and part-time staffers. The crew covers everything from innovations in classroom teaching, STEM and arts programs to student mental health, school security and the ongoing challenges of funding, equity and teacher shortages.

The site’s mission is unapologetic advocacy, as Kaufman sees it: “Our driving passion is for the public schools. We want to see them do well.” 

‘She was always really good at explaining why it mattered, why people needed to have real journalists covering schools objectively.’

— Erin Albanese, SNN managing editor 

As in an expert teacher’s lesson plan, the success of School News Network flowed from that original mission, Kaufman says. 

“I was sure that once we had thousands of stories told by real journalists, in the schools, seeing the classrooms for themselves, that we would have irrefutable evidence that our public schools work. And we do, and they do.” 

The evidence shows up in surveys that show SNN readers grade all area school districts highly, contrary to usual findings of A or B for your own district, C or D for the others, Koehler notes. 

“I think it’s elevated the perception of the value of our public schools in our community,” he says. 

Bring on the Future

Thanks to Kaufman’s leadership, SNN will continue to thrive following her retirement, says Albanese, who now takes the lead editor’s role. 

“She’s (taken) SNN from concept to a well-established education news site. Her legacy is School News Network. She built the foundation.”

Kaufman says she feels good about what has been accomplished and is “excited to see what the future brings.” 

“I hope this amazing publication stands as my, and our SNN team’s tribute to public education, telling the stories of our public schools for decades to come.” 

Read more about SNN’s 10th anniversary
Superintendent and teacher talk about a decade of challenges and rewards
Administrator reflects on negatives, positives of past decade

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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