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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Back to School   

A Chicago Sun-Times columnist heads to a teaching job in the inner-city schools.


By Tricia Eller
Tricia Eller is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


Everyone who wants to go back to middle school at the age of 45, raise your hands. No? Didn't think so. But that's exactly what Leslie Baldacci is doing this fall, only this time she's on the other side of the desk.

Baldacci leaves the Chicago Sun-Times and takes with her the wisdom she garnered during her 15 years at the paper. She's going to need it in her new position as one of 100 interns from all walks of life assigned to teach in inner-city schools under the nonprofit group, Teachers For Chicago. "The first year is very frustrating and angst/anxiety driven,"says Fred Chesek , program manager.

"I'm scared to death,"Baldacci says. But the fear's not enough to keep her from what she sees as the most important thing she can do at this point in her life: teach children, particularly seventh- and eighth-graders. "I find that age fascinating,"says Baldacci, who has a daughter entering eighth grade.

After 25 years in the media in various positions (radio host, reporter, night bureau chief, editor and, most recently, a columnist at the Sun-Times), she says it's time to move on. "I think the industry has changed,"she explains. "It got too slick and less fun."

Baldacci sprang the news on her editor, John Barron , and then moved on to tell the newsroom in a general can-I-have-your-attention-please bomb dropping. Within hours, the scramble for her coveted column space had begun.

"She's always had a bit of a social conscience about her,"Barron says. "I just had to sort of shake my head and say, `Good luck' and, `You are going to be a great teacher.'"

Baldacci says it's the power surrounding the Sun-Times she'll miss, the power in affiliation and in her column. But those are the positions that best prepared her for what's to come. "I'm not going in there blind,"she says. "I have a very realistic view of what's out there. I've covered Chicago housing. I've covered juvenile courts."

Baldacci will earn $22,000 each year for the two years she interns--"the pay-cut's gonna kick my butt,"she says--along with a master's in education paid for by Teachers For Chicago. At the end of the internship, she owes Chicago schools two years of full-time teaching at full pay.

Giving in to the noble instincts doesn't mean she's completely leaving journalism behind, though. Opportunities have been cropping up, including offers to compile her columns into a book and a chance to work on a sitcom idea she's kept in the back of her mind. Sorry, she says, no plot hints.