Throughout 2021, our Press Democrat newsroom has seen numerous changes. We’ve welcomed new staffers from markets around the country to fill vacancies, while also assigning existing reporters to new beats or areas of coverage. These moves are focused on one goal: Being an even more essential source of local news for Sonoma County readers.
To better acquaint you with those who pursue and produce the stories you read daily, we’re launching today a new occasional series. “Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, snap photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We’re more than journalists. As you’ll see, we’re also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences who proudly call Sonoma County home.
Today, we introduce you to Kaylee Tornay, our education reporter.
Enjoy getting to know our staff, and thanks, as always for reading.
Richard A. Green, executive editor
As far back as I can remember, my grandfather had a handy way of listing off life priorities he wanted to pass down to his seven grandchildren.
Five fingers were required: God, who came first, was counted on the thumb. Family was next. And then the final three: Education, education, education.
It was one of those grandfatherly quirks that, when my sister and cousins and I were young, mostly made us giggle.
A bit of an eye roll began to accompany the laughter as we got older, still Nana — how Hindi speakers refer to their mother’s father — repeated his refrain often.
Now, it’s been years — including three since Nana passed — and I think of his mnemonic differently.
That’s not only because of what I’ve learned since childhood about how much education shaped his and my grandmother’s lives, including bringing them across the globe from India to this country. It’s also because my appreciation for what it means to learn, and how learning changes us, has grown.
A year ago, I arrived in Sonoma County amid smoke, power shut-offs and general chaos, and stepped into a general assignment/education reporting role at The Press Democrat.
A few months ago, I became our full-time education reporter, marking my fourth year covering schools for a living.
I’ve covered stories about all kinds of progress, setbacks and successes in those years: from students whose opportunities to learn welding or fabrication in high school had already placed them on a career track, to students graduating from high school who had already completed associate degrees at the local community college.
There was Karmen, who was counted by the Oregon Department of Education as a dropout after she fell behind during her senior year — but then persevered and received her diploma the following year.
And Luis, a Dreamer who was forced to leave his young wife and return to Mexico to apply for residency, finishing his nursing degree from a distance and attending his graduation by Zoom a year before the pandemic made that experience far more common.
Our experiences with learning, I believe, are so closely intertwined with what kind of community member we become, how we relate to the world and even ourselves.
My own story played out mostly in Bend, Oregon, where I grew up.
Before joining the public system in middle school, I was homeschooled for my elementary years.
One of the things I remember most about what that meant was getting to go ski at Mt. Bachelor some weekdays when the other kids were stuck in class.
On my first trips to the mountain, I was often the kid sobbing with fear, staring down from the top of the steep part of the run.
I wanted a cerebral solution to the slope in front of me, but the only way to teach myself to get down it was simply to do it.
It’s one of the first scary things I can remember learning by doing, and there was no measurable grade, like an “A” at the bottom. There was only the satisfaction of conquering my own fear.
I was always writing fiction novels, and the dream of publishing still lives in my heart. But a book I read in high school called “Half the Sky,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize, was what changed my career dreams from fiction author or architect to journalist.
The transformative power of delving into another person’s story caught me my sophomore year and has yet to let go.
Here in Sonoma County, we’re already in our first weeks of a new school year, and, like many of you, I’m nervous.
All of us — from the student just entering kindergarten to the most-experienced administrator — are learning by doing. And, as the distance from campus reminded many of us last year, schools are vastly more than a collection of classrooms — they’re essential hubs of interpersonal connection, nutrition and socialization.
So, how are we going to figure it all out?
Well, my job is to show up and be there, documenting what’s going on so we can understand what’s happening now, and later learn from what we did — or didn’t do.
It’s no reflection of failure, but rather health, I think, to say that I need you in order to do my part well.
I write the words, but it’s the generosity and honesty of parents, students and school staff at every level that help me tell the stories of education in Sonoma County.
It’s a vital job, and know that as I do it, I hold in my heart the motto my own family gave me to always remind me of the importance of what I’m covering.