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Mary Pasciak has been covering the Buffalo Public Schools for only 20 months -- but oh, what a 20 months it has been.

In that time, Superintendent James A. Williams came under increasing fire and eventually resigned under pressure.

A strong parents movement has cropped up, leading to a controversial student boycott of the schools one day last spring.

The state Education Department has rejected plans more than once to turn around low-performing schools.

And two national programs have swooped in to Buffalo with dramatic plans that could radically change the lives and futures of thousands of children.

Amid it all, Pasciak has been the model of a 21st century beat reporter, using a wide variety of journalistic tools -- from her live blogs of the weekly School Board meetings to her online chats with key figures -- to tell this extraordinary, continuing story. She used Facebook to develop sources and Twitter to get the word out.

Characteristically understated, Pasciak -- a Tonawanda native who graduated from Buffalo State College in 1997 -- says she had no dramatic ambitions when she moved to the public schools beat in May 2010, following stints as a suburban reporter and on the investigative reporting team.

"I wanted to give people a more accurate picture of what was actually happening in the district," she says. "There was such a sense of fear among everybody I talked to. That's not the sign of a healthy institution."

She set out "to start to peel back the layers and get some sunlight in there."

The Williams administration, she recalls, was secretive and uncooperative. Pasciak wasn't allowed into schools, was denied basic public information and was not allowed to talk to teachers or principals without official permission and a great deal of red tape.

"I had to bypass the administration altogether and develop other sources," she says. But that wasn't easy when employees lived in an atmosphere of fear and recrimination.

"A lot of people risked their jobs to talk to me, provide documents, email, meet me for coffee They had the guts to do something scary."

She brought her investigative skills to the beat. For example, in one notable story, she used freedom of information requests to document how frequently Williams was out of Buffalo at a time when the schools were in disarray.

And her stories got results. In December 2010, School Board member Vivian Evans resigned, less than a day after Pasciak reported that records for her district-issued cellphone showed that she has been living in Maryland since the end of July. Evans had been denying the residency issue for months.

Meanwhile, Pasciak's daily updates to the School Zone blog became required reading for those who cared about what was happening in the beleaguered school district. She used The News' website to post contracts, databases and other documents.

Although Pasciak makes no grand claims about her work, she does realize it has made a difference.

"I feel as if I, and the paper, have been advocates for the kids and for improving public education and promoting transparency. We've fought for that and done it effectively."

The change in openness has been dramatic. The School Board has pledged, for example, to conduct its interviews of superintendent search firms publicly, just as it did when it interviewed candidates for a vacant board seat last month.

Now, with Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon creating stability, the school system is preparing to work with Say Yes to Education on major system improvements to the schools -- and to guarantee free college tuition to those who graduate.

In short, things are looking up in the public schools whose crucial mission is to educate 34,000 pupils in the third-poorest city in the nation.

Pasciak's smart, dogged and innovative reporting is a big reason why.

email: editor@buffnews.com