“Denied: How Texas Keeps Tens of Thousands of Kids Out of Special Education”


Recipient of the JOINT COMPETITION: TAPB AND TAPME BEST ONLINE PACKAGE award in The Charles E. Green Awards (2016)

Rachael Gleason, Jordan Rubio, Brian Rosenthal and Marie De Jesús, photographer
Houston Chronicle


Judge’s Comments:

For more than a decade, thousands of Texas students with special needs did not receive the services they needed because of a limit set by the Texas Education Agency. Teachers, students, parents and even lawmakers in the state had no idea about the limit until a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation called “Denied” uncovered the cap.

In a sweeping series that included seven installments, four deep-dive personal stories of students and their families and myriad reaction stories and input from readers, the Chronicle team illustrated the devastating effect of denying or delaying services to so many who needed them.

The mix of text, photography, videos, data visualizations and other interactive features enticed readers to explore the complex regulations and laws guiding special education in the United States and how they were being skirted by Texas officials. It is no surprise that the U.S. Department of Education intervened shortly after the stories began to run.

The Chronicle’s digital coverage brought readers close to many children who were not granted special ed services, including one Austin student with Down syndrome. Only after his mother retained a lawyer did he receive the services he needed – one year later. In other cases, children were never granted services.

Photographers let us peer into the lives of these students through their intimate images of everyday childhood moments – playing arcade games, jumping on a trampoline, hugging the family dogs.

The team encouraged readers to share their own stories through a prominent online form. The Chronicle also included an inventive “Steal Our Data” feature that others interested in special education services in Texas and across the country could download. An inline Twitter tool provided readers with pre-written tweets on multiple facts about special education that linked back to the story.

The coverage sparked multiple investigations, including on the federal level, where officials are now trying to determine whether the state violated federal special education law.

Congratulations on this fine piece of interactive, investigative work.

Amy L. Kovac-Ashley
Senior Newsroom Learning Manager, American Press Institute
Washington, D.C.

Amy L. Kovac-Ashley is in charge of the newsroom learning program at the American Press Institute. She has been a reporter and editor at such media outlets at Foreign Policy magazine, The Roanoke Times, The Washington Post and Patch. She has also been a journalism educator, most recently as a visiting assistant professor and managing director of the Reed College of Media Innovation Center at West Virginia University. From 2012 to 2015, she was the assistant dean of Georgetown’s master’s in journalism program. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University.

To experience the Houston Chronicle’s overall excellence on this prize-winning series, select the links below.


 Video Interview with Online Journalists Rachael Gleason and Jordan Rubio

Video Interview with Investigative Reporter Brian Rosenthal

Headliners Foundation