#COGIVESDAY

Now more than ever, it’s vital to support strong, local, independent journalism

Will you support our education reporting today?

The past few weeks have put an intense focus on the role of the media. In an age of fake news and claims by some that the truth doesn’t matter — that it doesn’t even exist anymore — what can a responsible citizen do?

I can tell you what we are doing at Chalkbeat: We are doing our work.

That meant, on Nov. 9, sending reporters to schools to capture stories of students showing up in tears, worried that their loved ones may be deported. It meant chasing every vote in a hard-fought State Board of Education race that will help determine Colorado’s course on education policy for years. It meant examining whether private school vouchers might fly here.

This work has a cost and to support it, we need your help. On Colorado Gives Day, will you stand up for the truth by helping us meet our goal of raising $5,000 from readers like you?

On social media and elsewhere, there has been a flood of support recently for large national news organizations, both in the form of donations and subscriptions. This is great to see. But I would argue that the most vital journalism happens at the local level. And it is local journalism that is most imperiled by the economic forces that have battered the news industry in recent years. You can see it in the diminished newsrooms of newspapers of all sizes and the decimated ranks of statehouse reporters.

Yet the decisions made closest to home are the ones that have the greatest impact on people’s lives. That’s why Chalkbeat journalists attend community meetings, school board work sessions and legislative committee hearings that run deep into the night.

Increasingly, we are partnering with news organizations that once would have been considered competitors. They are republishing our work, which allows them to focus their limited resources elsewhere.

Chalkbeat is committed to providing deep, smart, independent journalism in the community we call home. That mission includes documenting how events at the national level have an impact here in Colorado.

That word — impact— is important to us. We want to write stories that make a difference, that inform conversations, that inspire action.

Over the past year, we have done that.

We used public records and dogged reporting to shed new light on a Denver school board appointee, prompting a policy change that bought more transparency to the voting process and leading one board member to thank us for holding the board accountable.

Our reporting uncovered faulty data on school discipline, calling into question the credibility of a report that trumpeted an uptick in discipline rates and causing the state to make a correction in the case of one district.

We exposed a secret meeting of the Colorado State Board of Education at a posh private club, a story that led the state Department of Education to hold a training session for the board on open records and meetings law.

Now more than ever, we need your support to do this work. Will you make a tax-deductible donation today?

Eric Gorski is bureau chief of Chalkbeat Colorado

introducing ourselves

Friends, family, and even strangers questioned how I could move to Detroit with kids. Here’s what they should ask instead

Chalkbeat is launching in Detroit. As we kick off an extended conversation about schools in the city, we want to introduce ourselves. Here, get to know Erin Einhorn, our founding reporter. Also: Meet Julie Topping, a longtime Detroit resident and former Detroit Free Press editor who has joined us as our editor. And CEO Elizabeth Green explains why we’re putting down roots.

In the two and a half years since my husband and I sold our cramped Brooklyn apartment and moved with two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same question — over and over (and over) again.

“You live in Detroit?” we’re asked, as eyes widen and brow furrows. “And you have kids?”

It’s not the living in Detroit that’s the issue, obviously. Plenty of people are moving to Detroit from places like Brooklyn these days, drawn by the city’s charm and authenticity, its low cost of living, and the exciting opportunity to be part of a city’s transformation.

But it’s one thing to come here and celebrate as abandoned buildings fill with lofts and bars and boutiques. It’s entirely another to deliberately bring two children into a city known to have some of the worst schools in the country. And that’s why we get so many questions from friends, relatives, even strangers — and why sometimes those questions come layered in judgment.

“I’d love to live downtown,” several suburban parents have told me. “But, you know, I have kids.”

Never mind the fact that there are 140,000 children living in the city of Detroit. The people who ask these questions seem to think we’re bad parents — as if choosing to live in an interesting, diverse, and historic city like Detroit is somehow an act of parental neglect.

I’m not going to lie. The implication rankles.

“The next time someone asks me what we’re going to do about schools, I’m going to spit it back in their face,” my husband ranted last summer. “I’m going to ask where they send their kid that they think is so great.”

As he sees it, suburban schools look better on paper because they enroll middle-class children, mostly white, who decades of research have concluded will do better on tests than poor students no matter what kind of school they attend.

Many suburban districts near Detroit have overcrowded classrooms, cookie-cutter teach-to-the-test instruction, and financial problems that are a leading reason why schools across the state have been declining for decades.

My husband and I are not delusional. We know that Detroit schools face intense challenges.

As a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, I wrote about the Detroit teachers and families who, in a federal lawsuit last year, alleged deplorable conditions in local schools.

I covered the near-bankruptcy of Detroit’s main school district, which last year had debts so severe it needed $617 million from the state to stay afloat. The money kicked off a contentious political battle in Lansing that ended, most local school supporters say, with little more than short-term solutions. Not addressed are the problems that created the debt in the first place — plunging enrollment, crumbling buildings, and a teacher shortage so extreme that some schools have had to put 40 or 50 students in a classroom.

But perhaps the most alarming thing I’ve written is a story about why education groups with money and ideas are steering clear of Detroit: They don’t see anyone doing much of anything to fix systemic problems.

“What I commonly hear people say is ‘I don’t see a plan,’” a top national researcher told me. “I don’t see people coming together with a coordinated strategy that’s going to improve conditions there.”

So my husband and I know that our curious friends are asking a reasonable, well-informed question when they inquire about our plans for school. But here’s the thing: It’s the wrong question — and it’s being asked of the wrong people, because my family is going to be absolutely fine.

We have luxuries that are not available to the vast majority of families in Detroit. We have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids.

We have the time and resources to vet schools, to ask questions, to know that we have choices beyond whatever school happens to be nearby.

And we have what we realize is the very essence of privilege: We can opt out. Private school would be a stretch for us, both financially and philosophically because we truly believe in public education. But the option remains if we need it.

For the record, we don’t need it. At least not yet. Though it is more than a little unsettling to know that our five-year-old will start kindergarten soon in such a troubled school system, we have promising prospects — a dual language school where kids can learn to read English and Spanish at the same time, a notably diverse charter school that lets kids dive deeply into subject areas, a new public Montessori program, and a small, high-quality elementary school that’s so close to our home, our kids could walk there alone by the second grade.

We remain confident that we’ll find the right fit. But the fact remains that most Detroit children will not find a spot in a quality school. And that’s the problem I wish I were hearing about from my curious friends — not what am I going to do about school for my kids, but what are we all going to do about the fact that our schools are in crisis?

I don’t have the answers — none of us do — but I think a first step toward finding them is changing the question.

Growing Up

Chalkbeat expands: Why we’re putting down roots in Detroit, and our commitment to you as we grow

Chalkbeat is proud to announce we're now in Detroit — our fifth location!

Dear readers,

Exciting news from Chalkbeat land: Today, effective as soon as I hit “publish” on this letter, we are launching our fifth reporting site in one of this country’s most storied and vital cities — Detroit.

Our launch traces back to the fall of 2015, when I got a note from Erin Einhorn, a reporter whose scoops I chased, mostly without success, when we both covered New York City schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After living for years on the east coast, Erin, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs, had recently moved back to Michigan.

She wanted to talk to me about the schools in her new city, Detroit. “Parents are just completely lost trying to figure out what’s happening in schools,” she wrote. Even she, a professional finder of information, was at sea searching for schools for her own young children. Might we want to help her tackle the problem by adding news coverage to shed some light through the chaos?

A few months later, we were working with Erin to launch a test drive of Chalkbeat coverage in Detroit. We created a weekly newsletter and tried writing a few stories a month. Through Erin, we met Monique Johnson and her son Shownn, 13, of Brightmoor, who were commuting six hours every day just to get Shownn to and from a school they trust. We met Yolanda King, a Detroit Public Schools teacher whose faith in the district was so strained that she vowed never to send her own child to one of its schools — but who is now doing exactly that, driving her 4-year-old son from the suburbs to a new public school she believes in. We met Nir Saar, a determined principal leading a school on the rise that nevertheless faces an uncertain future as state officials move to shut down long-struggling schools.

When we asked readers if this was the kind of coverage they wanted more of, the answer came back in hundreds of signups for our newsletter, tens of thousands of readings of our stories, a slew of republications by local and national media alike, and hundreds of dollars of donations to our nonprofit cause.

Then the election happened, Donald Trump nominated Michigan education activist Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education, and our exploration took on expanded purpose. If DeVos is confirmed, as appears likely to happen next week, the whole country will need to better understand the education policy changes DeVos advocated for in Michigan and the consequences they wrought for families, teachers, and communities.

One way to do that is for national newspapers and thought leaders to swoop in for a few days to study and summarize the Michigan and Detroit story — a well-intentioned parachuting that has already begun.

But the reason we created Chalkbeat is that we think there’s a better way. Because if you really want to understand a place, and serve it, you need to live there. You need to show up, day in and day out. And you need to stay, not just for the political fireworks, but through the fallout.

For all these reasons, today, with the support of local foundations, we are officially putting down roots in Detroit — just as we did in Memphis and Indianapolis back in the fall of 2013, and New York City and Colorado in 2008.

Our pledge to Detroit readers, outlined in a letter to the city’s education community that we are publishing simultaneously with this one, is the same as our pledge to you, our existing readers in Colorado, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee. Here’s the condensed version of our core values:

  • We will focus on the story we care most about, the education of low-income students and families who stand the most to gain from better schools.
  • We will stay vigorously independent, taking no predetermined position on how to achieve better schools, and never letting anything but the truth influence our coverage.
  • We will put down roots and work with our readers, as well as for them. With the help of our community, we will stay in each place we work for as long as we can sustain — a long, long time, I hope.
  • We will seek impact, always working to get the full truth to the maximum number of people at the moments of greatest consequence.
  • We will make our newsrooms open to and representative of the diverse communities we cover.
  • And we will invest in our team, because to build a lasting community institution, we need to make sure we are all always learning and growing.

Detroit will not be the last place we expand. Indeed, we invite members of communities where Chalkbeat doesn’t yet exist to nominate your cities, towns, and states for future coverage.

As we grow, we know our existing readers might worry that we’ll lose our focus on the places where we started out and have built incredible communities of readers. We aren’t naive to the challenge ahead. We are working hard to protect against the danger of spreading ourselves thin. And we hope to prove in the weeks to come that we can serve you even better by expanding to Detroit and new locations to come.

To start, let me introduce you to the incredible team that is launching our work in Detroit. Our editor, Julie Topping, joins us after a stellar career at the Detroit Free Press, where the long list of topics she supervised included education. She is also leading our coverage in Indianapolis.

Julie joins Erin Einhorn, who will now cover Detroit schools full time, adding more in-depth reporting and daily news analysis to the occasional features that have already had an impact.

Julie and Erin are launching our work today by introducing themselves and their own Detroit education stories. We hope this is just the first step in a conversation we’ll keep up for a long time to come. And we hope you’ll join that conversation. You can start by signing up for our new Detroit newsletter here.

Thank you as always for being part of our community and for everything you do for schools and families.

With gratitude,

Elizabeth