2017 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

What Happened to Us?

James Causey, Rick Wood, Erin Caughey, Rahul Mukherjee, Kevin Crowe, Andrew Mollica and Michael Andre

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom


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About the Project

Milwaukee has long had a complex knot of urban problems, ranking among the nation’s leaders on a grim list: Segregation, crime, unemployment, drop out rates.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the early 1970s, Milwaukee was statistically one of the best places in the nation for African-American families. Then the economy fell out, with a massive loss of manufacturing jobs sending the city spiraling downward. The loss of jobs exacerbated some issues, and revealed others. All of the problems echo today.

To examine what happened in our city, we took a unique approach. Columnist James Causey set out to find the members of his 1978 third-grade class from Samuel Clemens Elementary School on the city’s north side.

Urban legend says prison officials use third-grade reading scores to predict how many cells they’ll need in the future. While untrue, third grade is an important watershed for kids.

Students who read poorly by the end of third grade are four times as likely to drop out before graduating from high school as proficient young readers, according to 2011 research by sociologist Donald Hernandez for the Brookings Institution Press.

In this case, Causey’s third-grade year came amid the economic collapse, in the wake of a community-altering school desegregation order and in the years before the rise of crack cocaine fueled the drug trade and began filling up the state’s prisons.

Causey did extensive interviews aimed at exploring how the issues that whipsawed the city have played out among his classmates in the decades that followed.

They revealed stories of despair and hope, of people who struggled for years to find jobs, to stay away from crime, to steer their children to a stable future. Stories of those who overcame addictions — and those fell victim to them.

Those stories were combined with detailed data analysis and dozens of interviews with experts.

The result is “What Happened to Us?” — a vivid, eye-opening multimedia look at the story of one third-grade class and what it says about our community today.