Two decades ago I opted out of public schools in Detroit for my family. Now I’m choosing to focus on them

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

What my colleague was asking for was not totally unreasonable.

A well-managed school. A safe school. A diverse school. Communication and trust between parents, students and educators. And a clear pathway to solid learning.

But we were in Detroit. It can be hard to find any of those things, let alone all of them, in any school system. Finding them here is even less likely.

I learned as much when I searched for a school for my son 23 years ago. There have been many changes in Detroit schools since then, but the problem of being a parent here is essentially the same. As I talked with Chalkbeat editor and reporter Erin Einhorn, it struck me like a slap across the face. She’s going through what I did — and it’s a shame.

In 1994, as now, Detroit public schools faced steep challenges: chronic absenteeism, severe teacher shortages, buildings in poor repair, the need for more innovation and a stronger academic program. Then, as now, many educators worked hard to serve students with significant needs. Then, as now, some schools had loyal followings among families.

And then, as now, many families with the means to do so looked beyond the public school system when choosing schools for their children.

That’s what I did in 1994, when as a newly promoted editor at the Detroit Free Press, I set out to find a school for my son. In those days, charter schools were barely a spot on Detroit’s map. Private schools were the main option as an alternative to the former school district, Detroit Public Schools, and that’s where I began my search.

Because my husband had died of lung cancer on my son’s fourth birthday, I wanted him to be able to look up to black male teachers in the classroom. None of the private schools I visited had any. Some didn’t even have African American women teachers.

I did not want my son to feel like a cockroach, which is what he told me once when he was the only black player on a neighborhood Grosse Pointe boys basketball team.

One white admissions counselor at a very tiny private school in a Detroit suburb told me how fortunate I was that I lived near the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe Park and didn’t have to send my son to Detroit schools. That was one of the schools with no African American teachers. We decided against it.

Ultimately, after a tip from the owner of his preschool, I found a very small Episcopal school called Herlong Cathedral school, which was run by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Detroit. (The school is now closed.) There was a racial mix of teachers. The curriculum was thorough, consistent, and the classes were small. It seemed safe. My son thrived there, and went on to graduate from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. He is now in his last year of law school at the University of Michigan. I guess you could say it all worked out for us.

But it hasn’t worked out so well for Detroit and most of its families. Its traditional school system has shrunk to the smallest it has ever been — not even 49,000 students, down from 1995, when there were more than 158,000 students in DPS.

The year 1995 is important because it was the start of Proposal A, which based school funding on the number of students attending the district. As the economy took a downturn and people fled urban areas in the 2000s, this funding system had a devastating effect on Detroit, which saw its school population plummet, and the dollars followed. It is part of the reason Detroit finances are so challenged today.

The sad state of urban schools was not something I was unfamiliar with as I embarked to educate my own son. My mother was a dedicated, hardworking seventh-grade English teacher in Toledo, Ohio. Toledo, about an hour’s drive from Detroit, was a smaller urban district, the same district where I went to school in the 1960s. A district that lacked books and supplies and often didn’t have substitute teachers when needed. A place where I would come home covered in food after a cafeteria fight, where I can point to gaps in my education because of a lack of teachers and books. Elementary school is where I saw a teacher fight off a student who probably didn’t like something she had to say. She limped away in a daze with her hair and clothes twisted and in disarray. He was pulled away swinging.

That was in the 1960s. My son graduated in 2007. It is now 2017.

So when Erin told me about a new effort she was launching to use our chosen professional tools — journalism — to do something about giving Detroit schools the attention and care they deserve, I jumped at the opportunity. I joined Chalkbeat full time earlier this month as our Detroit editor, working with Erin and the rest of the Chalkbeat team to create sustained, local reporting about the challenges Detroit faces — and the many local efforts to tackle those challenges.

I was comfortable with my decision in 1994. After two decades, as a journalist and as a parent, I can look back and feel I made the right choice. Today, I would consider Detroit schools as I searched the landscape for the right spot for my son. But I don’t know what I would choose.

I do know that schools are changing, the city is changing, and local education coverage is changing. It has never meant more to be part of it all.