A look at how we plan to cover education in Detroit this school year — and how you can help

Happy first week of school!

Earlier this week, I wrote in our Rise & Shine newsletter that as a longtime education reporter, I’ve always viewed the start of a new school year as an ideal time to reflect back and look ahead. We’re doing that on a broader scale at Chalkbeat, and today I’d like to share our coverage and outreach plans for the school year that just started.

Chalkbeat is doing this across all of our bureaus because we believe strongly in being transparent about the work we do, we want you to hold us accountable for meeting our goals, and, more important, we need your help as we fine-tune our coverage plans.

One thing you’ll notice: We plan to reach out more to seek input from our readers (and non-readers). This is a crucial part of our goal to engage and elevate the voices of students, teachers, and parents — all of whom have the most at stake in the effort to create a strong system of schools in Detroit. So stay tuned and please give us feedback when we seek ideas and insight on various topics. And stop by when we host informal gatherings. 

But you don’t have to wait for us to reach out to you. You can email me here, or email reporter Koby Levin here. We hope to add a new reporter to our team soon (if you  know of a great candidate, please share our job posting).

Meanwhile, stop by an event we’re co-sponsoring  with Citizen Detroit and other organizations on Sept. 18 to discuss education issues in Detroit. Speakers include Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit district, and Katie Rae Stolper, director of operations and accountability for the Community Education Commission. And keep an eye out for a listening session we’ll hold in October, co-sponsored with 482Forward, to discuss building issues in Detroit schools.

We’re the only media outlet that diligently covers Detroit education, and we plan to continue to do that over the coming school year. Here are some of the big topics you’ll see us write about.

The continued transition to local control in the Detroit school district: The Detroit school district is headed into a crucial third year of reform. Things are looking up, with M-STEP results released last week showing gains across the district, chronic absenteeism on the decline, new water hydration stations installed to address water quality issues, teacher pay increases, and a new curriculum.

This year, we’ll be looking to see whether the district can sustain the academic gains. We’ll look at how the new high school curriculum is playing out for teachers and students. It’s a natural follow-up to a piece we published earlier this year that looked at how K-8 teachers were adjusting to a new curriculum launched last year. 

While the decline in chronic absenteeism is notable, there are still significant numbers of students missing too much school, and we’ll seek to tell more stories about why some students don’t come to school, and what the consequences are. The district and teachers union will be back at the bargaining table later this school year, so we’ll be looking at what issues are raised. 

How the Detroit district will address building  concerns?: This is one of the most important issues the Detroit district will have to address this year, as it deals with more than $500 million worth of facility needs. Probably the most compelling way to tell this story is through the voices of students who are navigating school in sometimes unpleasant and unhealthy conditions. Their stories can resonate with key people like state lawmakers who may play a role in helping the district address those needs. We’ll also take  a look at what the district’s options are for fixing its crumbling buildings. We’re cognizant that the district isn’t alone in operating in a lot of old buildings, so we’ll also take a look at how charter schools are addressing facility issues.

High schools: The district’s new high school curriculum for math and English language arts is part of a dramatic shift in how students learn — and it came after an audit found the previous materials were inferior. We’ll look to see whether the new curriculum  has an impact on SAT scores and college readiness outcomes. One of the biggest stories we’ll undertake this year is a deep look at what happens to Detroit high school grads (district and charter) when they leave high school and go on to college? What academic, financial, and social challenges do they face? What is needed to ensure they’re successful?

Third-grading reading: We’ve been following the state’s Read by Grade 3 law since it was passed several years ago. This year, the coverage will increase as a state rule kicks in requiring third graders to be held back if they’re a grade level or more behind in reading. We hope to be able to spend time this year in third-grade classes in charter and district schools to capture what it’s like as this deadline looms. But we also want to take a step back to look at how effective reading instruction is, both in today’s classrooms and in teacher preparation programs. educators teach students to read, and how preparation programs are teaching aspiring teachers to teach reading.

Charter schools, early childhood education, special education, and English language learners: We will continue to invest in our coverage of charter schools, given that half of the school-age children in the city are enrolled in charters in the city or suburbs. We’ll also invest  more time writing and reporting about some of the most vulnerable children, such as those with special education needs and those learning to speak English. One of the big questions we seek to answer is how schools can meet the needs of these students absent a state budget formula that provides additional funding for them. As for early childhood education, we’ll continue to write about some of the unique efforts to address the need. We’ll also hold government officials accountable for promises to create a universal preschool education system in the state.

We’re serious about needing input from you to help us meet our coverage goals — and to ensure that we’re covering the kinds of stories you care about. So please, reach out to either Koby or me using the email links above. Or you can email us both at detroit.tips@chalkbeat.org

You can find us on Twitter @ChalkbeatDET or on Facebook at ChalkbeatDetroit. You also find me on Twitter @LoriAHiggins, and Koby at @levin_koby.

Here’s hoping for a great school year!