Meet a journalist: Allegra Abramo

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This summer, Allegra Abramo joins InvestigateWest from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where she is studying for a Master's degree in journalism with a focus on health and science. She's the kind of journalist we love — skeptical and interesting, with a fondness for data and people alike. Here are a few questions we asked so we could introduce her to you.

What made you want to be a journalist?

When I took a mid-career pause to assess how I wanted to spend the rest of my working life, I realized research and writing are the tasks I enjoy the most. I’m happiest when I’m learning something new every day, and I have the annoying habit of asking “why?” a lot. Journalism seemed like the perfect fit. It gives me an excuse to interview a scientist one day and a community leader the next, to grapple with the nitty-gritty of how research was done and its limitations, and how policies and programs are affecting people on the ground. Then I get to delve into reports and scrutinize data, and finally weave what I learn into a story that helps people understand the world.

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Happy Birthday, InvestigateWest!

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Associate Director Jason Alcorn. Photo: Sarah Stuteville.

For InvestigateWest's five-year anniversary party on June 19, we invited Peggy Watt to say a few words about InvestigateWest from her vantage point training young journalists, including several former IW interns. Watt chairs the journalism department at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. Here are her prepared remarks.

So you are five years old. I have been thinking a bit about 5-year-olds lately, because my grandson Spencer Glenn will be five on his next birthday. Here are the things I have been noticing about 5-year-olds....

They are inquisitive.

And InvestigateWest is certainly that, by keeping investigative reporting alive and well in the Pacific Northwest. I have enjoyed your work in environmental, health and political issues, and will be watching to see what you explore next.

Five-year-olds are energetic.

I’ve covered Silicon Valley startups, and I see the same vibe at InvestigateWest. Robert came to Western as a visiting professional in the company’s first year. We work our Visiting Pros pretty hard, scheduling them to speak to as many classes as possible during the day and partying with the faculty at night, but he kept up – and without caffeine. One of his stories to the students was how he moved to Seattle and gave up coffee. You’ll have to ask him about that one.

Five-year-olds are creative.

And InvestigateWest has been creative in presenting its journalism, using online presentations, galleries, solid long-form journalism, a range of reporting methods and presentation methods.

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Join Us on June 19 to Celebrate Five Years

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Every summer we invite friends and supporters to join us in celebrating the anniversary of InvestigateWest's founding in 2009. It's a wonderful opportunity to connect with old friends, meet new friends, and thank everyone who makes it possible for us to do what we do here.

This year's event is happening on June 19 at 5 p.m. at the South Lake Union Discovery Center.

Come enjoy drinks and light refreshments between work and dinner. We'll have a short program around 6 to thank some important people and give you a taste of the exciting things to come for InvestigateWest. There will also be a silent auction with items generously donated by the community.

Please RSVP at EventBrite so we know how many people to plan for.

We can't wait to see everyone on June 19!

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One Year After Skagit Bridge Collapse, Little Done To Improve Bridges

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Two vehicles retrieved from the Skagit River on May 27, 2013, with the collapsed Interstate 5 Bridge in the background. Photo: Flickr/WSDOT

On the day that Jan Auman, a coffee shop owner in Skagit County, had planned to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her new business, the nearby I-5 bridge collapsed.

A flatbed truck carrying an oversize load had collided with the span’s overhead frame, “sway braces” that kept the bridge steady. The bridge collapsed and several cars fell into the water. No one was killed, but the event cast the spotlight on the state’s roster of sagging bridges.

Within weeks, federal safety investigators issued a preliminary report and construction of a temporary bridge was underway. The trucking company, the required escort car that guided the truck across the bridge, and Washington state officials all started to point fingers, and traffic snarled in front of Auman’s North Cove Coffee Shop. Customers wouldn’t leave their spot in the line of traffic to come in.

“It really rattled us,” Auman said. “It was like, we won’t make it.”

Traffic has since eased, but political gridlock persists. Friday marks a year since the collapse of the Skagit River bridge, and on the surface, little has changed. Party politics have thwarted bridge safety improvements, and an investigation drags on to decide how the trucking company, its escort car and the state may share blame. Yet a new mapping tool for truckers may offer hope.

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NPR's Here and Now Airs Reporting on Portable Classrooms

This month marks another milestone for InvestigateWest: national radio airplay for one of our projects. Our series on portable classrooms called Inside the Box and produced in partnership with EarthFix was featured on Here and Now, a national program from NPR and WBUR Boston that reaches 3.1 million listeners each week.

Take a listen below to Ashley Ahearn's reporting as she first tells about the problems associated with aging portables and then how some schools in the Pacific Northwest are turning to new and better models.

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School Districts Explore Solutions For Excessive Portable Classroom Use

Third-grade teacher Nancy Avery helps her class during reading time. Avery taught in a portable classroom for 27 years. This is her first year inside a brick-and-mortar building at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane, Washington. Photo: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix

SPOKANE, Wash. — Teachers at Spokane’s Jefferson Elementary don’t have to look far to know what they left behind.

The school’s old portable classrooms sit just a block away from their brand new building. It was in those portables where for nearly 30 years, Nancy Avery made the choice between fresh air and listening to her students, when she’d routinely switch off the noisy ventilation system that drowned out their voices.

It was in the school’s 14 portables where students and teachers were sick far too often, she said. Several teachers contracted skin reactions, she said, that have dissipated since the move to the new building.

No longer does Avery worry about water leaks and ceiling stains. No more will the hot, stuffy box lull her students during standardized testing.

But most of all, there’s no more smell. That’s what she and the others notice most.

“Those portable classrooms don’t have a masonry foundation at all, so you just have dirt underneath — so it smells a lot better in this new building,” Jefferson Elementary Principal Mary-Dean Wooley said. “That moldy, earthy smell is absent completely.”

In September, Jefferson Elementary’s new $25-million campus eliminated the need for portables. Built with enough space to accommodate future enrollment growth, Wooley said the school shouldn’t need them any time soon.

States Put No Limits On Use Of Portable Classrooms

Workers at Blazer Industries push a half-built portable classroom out the door of the modular building manufacturing plant in Aumsville, Oregon. Photo: Cassandra Profita/EarthFix

AUMSVILLE, Ore. – After affixing the roof to the walls, five workers push a half-built classroom out the door of the Blazer Industries manufacturing plant. Clearly, this is a portable classroom.

It’s one of about 130 portables Blazer has been contracted to build this year. Most will go to overcrowded schools in Washington state, and most will be built in four to seven days. Inside this warehouse, the company has built entire schools, churches, hospitals and high-end homes — one truckable piece at a time.

Blazer’s customers can choose what kind of buildings they want. They can order upgraded heating and ventilation systems and non-toxic building materials to improve the indoor air quality and reduce health risks, company engineer Rock Shetler said. But those options cost a lot more.

“The biggest thing with classrooms is really the budget of the school districts,” he said. “When the budget only allows the cheapest materials and the cheapest products, that’s really what it comes down to.”

The state of Washington says the cheapest materials aren’t good enough for new schools. It requires new school buildings to meet a long list of environmental conditions to qualify for state construction funds under the Sustainable School Protocol.

“Merely complying with minimum codes during design and installation will not ensure good indoor air quality,” the state says in the protocol.

But those rules don’t apply to portable classrooms. For portables, Washington offers recommendations, not requirements.

‘They Have To Go’: The Environmental And Health Costs Of Portable Classrooms

Teacher Billie Lane’s portable is a world apart from other classrooms at her school.

She’s filled the space with toys from across the universe: Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel, Transformers and Godzilla. Lane’s World, her students named it — an homage to the faux public-access TV hit.

The modular classroom at Kalles Junior High in Puyallup, Washington is her home. She’s taught in the box for 16 years.

And she takes care of it. But not every portable classroom is like hers.

“Some of them smell really bad,” she says. “Some of them, the lighting is really bad. It’s dark. It’s dank. And when it’s that kind of an atmosphere, it sets a tone for your meetings or for your classroom. It doesn’t feel very welcoming. It’s not a good place to be.”

The Puyallup School District where she teaches has 205 such boxes. They form 20 percent of the district’s classroom space. They hold more than 4,000 students — so many that a new high school, a new middle school and two elementary schools wouldn’t provide enough classroom space for them all.