Berkeleyside welcomes education reporter Ally Markovich onto staff

She will continue to bring to our newsroom her thoughtful, tenacious coverage of the Berkeley school district and other local education institutions.

Berkeleyside education reporter Ally Markovich describes her approach to journalism as “thoughtful and thorough, rooted in people’s experiences and speaking to big questions.” Credit: Sarah Durn

We are delighted to announce that education reporter Ally Markovich will join the staff of Berkeleyside starting Wednesday, Dec. 1. 

“She has proven to be a no-nonsense reporter who is not afraid to ask the tough questions,” said Pamela Turntine, Berkeleyside editor-in-chief. “Her addition to our team strengthens Berkeleyside’s commitment to provide daily informative and newsworthy stories that impact the lives of Berkeley residents.”  

A former teacher, Ally has been a full-time reporter for less than a year, but hard-hitting journalism has long been her passion. She landed her first bylines in The New York Times and The Washington Post when she was just a college junior.

At Berkeleyside, where she is currently on contract, her tenacious reporting has broken news of a COVID-19 outbreak linked to boys basketball tryouts at Berkeley High, uncovered a private music school controversy centering around crustacean jokes in a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary test, and exposed how the Berkeley school district’s sexual harm reporting process has failed students

Last week, Ally published a 3,900-word investigation revealing that the district knew about students’ sexual misconduct allegations against chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell for at least 15 years, and that Superintendent Brent Stephens ultimately signed a separation agreement promising not to say anything negative about Bissell to potential employers. 

The documents that yielded these revelations would not have come to light were it not for Ally’s dogged follow-up of a student’s claims that she’d been repeatedly sexually assaulted from 1999-2003.

“As I was reporting, people kept telling me ‘There’s more here. You’re just scratching the surface.’” Ally said. “I filed Public Records Act requests to try to find answers. When my request was denied, I sought advice from other investigative reporters and a media lawyer. You have a right to those records, they promised. Keep at it.”

A widely curious reporter (she’s written about everything from wild turkeys and monarch butterflies to the racist history of curfews and the Greek refugee crisis) — Ally describes her approach as “thoughtful and thorough, rooted in people’s experiences and speaking to big questions.” 

Born in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, Ally moved to Ohio when she was 2. Her mother was an immigration lawyer; her father, a secular Jewish data architect — they took advantage of an American law allowing Jews and members of other historically persecuted groups to immigrate as refugees. 

An inquisitive child and voracious reader of sci-fi novels, Ally spent most of her childhood in the Cleveland suburb of Gates Mills, declaring in kindergarten that she wanted to grow up to be “a reader.” In high school, she became addicted to Truman Capote books, edited the commentary section of her student newspaper — named, colorfully, The Affirmative No — and took a revelatory class in creative nonfiction, where Brian Doyle’s work taught her how to use hummingbirds and whales to discuss emotional vulnerability.

She remains proud of a story she co-wrote for the AffNo about a chicken-and-waffles “soul food celebration” planned for MLK Day that sparked a tense conversation about race and racism on a campus where social segregation was accepted as a fact of life. “It felt really important to the school community to talk about something that was beneath the surface and not addressed but nevertheless really shaped the experience there,” Ally said. 

At Princeton University, Ally studied political science and ran varsity cross country and track and field while continuing to develop her writing skills, freelancing for the University Press Club and taking a class from John McPhee, a father of creative nonfiction whose essays she’d studied as a teen. 

The summer before her senior year, she interned at the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s oldest English-language newspaper, conducting interviews in Russian and writing about corruption, secret detention centers, and how the widening political division between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians was coloring people’s religious views

She had arrived in Kyiv in the summer of 2016, with the country destabilized by a series of major crises. Within the past three years, Russia had annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the country’s Donbas region had become a war zone and a revolution had ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, from office. 

Questions about the role that Russia should play in Ukraine divided the country, bleeding into people’s personal lives. Back home in Ohio, Ally’s father, Yuri, was at loggerheads over Ukrainian politics with her uncle Michael. In Odessa, it was the same. “It seemed like everyone I met, from interview subjects to cab drivers, had a family member or close friend from whom they had recently become estranged due to political disagreement,” Ally wrote in her prize-winning senior thesis, which sought to explain why some Ukrainians had become so politicized that they couldn’t maintain relationships with those of opposing views. Her findings: Men, internet commenters and people living in conflict zones were all more likely to cut ties. 

“I was interested in polarization because, as a person, I feel pretty empathetic with views that are different than mine, and journalism is often a practice of hearing out people who have a different viewpoint and giving them the best representation possible,” Ally said. 

After college, Ally considered pursuing a journalism career by working her way up the ladder at a national publication, but ultimately decided she didn’t want to be part of a scrum of reporters regurgitating the same story. “I became a little disillusioned; I had a very strong desire to do something good,” she said. 

So she became a high school English teacher — first taking a job in Mississippi, then in Trenton, New Jersey, then accepting a post at a school in Oakland, where she worked until June 2020. 

When she first entered her Ruleville, Mississippi, classroom, she struggled with what it meant to be a good teacher “as a relatively privileged white person teaching mostly poor Black kids.” She researched how poverty influences students’ brains and read the Portuguese philosopher Paulo Freire’s 1968 tome Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “I actually think that was unproductive for me as a teacher,” Ally said. “Because I saw my students through these lenses that fit into bigger narratives when what they really needed was to be treated like individuals.” 

After three years in the classroom, Ally had overcome a number of early-career hurdles, but though she was better at it, she found she didn’t really like teaching.  “You bet I squeezed all the creative non-fiction I could into the curriculum,” she said. “My students conducted interviews and wrote profiles, until it was clear how badly I wanted to write myself.” 

What she was more interested in, she realized, were the larger education policy questions around charter schools, testing, funding and how to close the opportunity gap. “I felt like I’d been inside of a much bigger, more complicated system — looking out,” she said. “And I was interested in trying to learn about that system on a broader level rather than being a subject of so many forces.” 

Covering the Berkeley schools, she’s grateful for her sources, who bring not just their perspective and experience but also — frequently — well-researched information presented on a silver platter.  

“So many people have already done the work of reporting to some extent — trying to find out information,” she said. “So many parents have filed public records requests with the school district. It’s kind of crazy, it’s highly uncommon, it’s very Berkeley.

“I don’t feel like I’m coming in as an expert on Berkeley schools because there are so many people who have been so invested in the school district for a long time. Part of my job is to give those people space and a microphone.”

Ally lives in an 11-person South Berkeley co-op and fuels her emoji-filled School Board Tweetstorms with feasts of homemade falafel and chickpea salad graciously dished up by her roommates. When she’s not reporting, you can find her running the fire trails above campus, sampling the soups at Cha-Ya, scaling Indian Rock, and gazing into the distance from Inspiration Point. 

Zac Farber is managing editor of Berkeleyside. Email: zac@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: zacfarber.