introducing ourselves

Hi, we’re Chalkbeat. Here’s our commitment to you as we tell the story of Detroit’s schools

Dear Detroit,

A little over a year ago, an old colleague, Erin Einhorn, reached out with a proposal: Might Chalkbeat consider covering schools in her home, Detroit?

Since then, as we tested out the idea with 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 DPS — but who is now doing exactly that, driving her 4-year-old son in from the suburbs to attend 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.

We also reached out to Detroiters, asking whether this was the kind of news coverage you wanted more of. You answered with a resounding yes, signing up for our newsletter, reading and sharing our stories widely, and even donating to our nonprofit newsroom to help us keep the stories coming.

Today, we answer you by officially putting down roots in Detroit. Effective right now, Chalkbeat is up and running in Detroit — led by Erin and our new colleague Julie Topping, a longtime Detroiter who most recently served as senior director of content strategy at the Detroit Free Press.

We can’t wait to get started. But before we do, let me tell you a little more about Chalkbeat. Because as we go forward, we’ll be asking you to share your stories with us. So we might as well start by sharing our own.

Meet Chalkbeat

Chalkbeat has two birthdays. The first is in 2008, when our cofounders — me, Elizabeth Green (hi!), and Alan Gottlieb — created two very small, very scrappy newsrooms to cover schools in our own communities of New York City and Denver, Colorado. We didn’t know each other yet, but we shared the same belief: That our local schools mattered, and that fair, honest journalism could help everyone who cared about schools come together to strengthen them. Because getting better starts with understanding what is happening, and that is not a simple task.

Over the next several years, we built a new kind of news organization. Like traditional reporters, we did not push for any agenda on how to promote schools. We just told the full and complete story of what was happening — good, bad, and ugly. And we tried to do that at the moments when people most needed good information to make important decisions: the school board votes, the budget debates, the major policy twists and turns.

Even as we pursued old-fashioned truth telling, we also did a few things differently. For one, we focused our reporting exclusively on a single story — the story of public education, particularly public education in the low-income communities where schools matter most. We also invested the bulk of our resources into local reporting. The story of education, after all, is local. Yet at just the time public education has undergone significant change in our country, local TV, radio, and newspapers have sadly seen significant cutbacks that made it even harder for communities to follow what is happening.

Finally, instead of pursuing a commercial model where newsgathering is supported exclusively by advertising and subscriptions, we opened as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, mixing traditional ad revenue with reader donations and major grants. We did this because we knew from our own experience working at commercial newspapers that coverage of low-income communities is the first to go when for-profit models have to cut costs. To support reporting about those with the most to gain or lose as public education evolved, we needed to create a new business model.

With every grant maker, from $5 donors to $500,000 ones, we entered a sacred agreement: They would not attempt to influence our coverage, and we would base our truth-telling on nothing but that, the truth.

Thankfully, a growing community of donors has fully honored their side of the bargain. And with their help, in the winter of 2014 we marked that second birthday I mentioned by joining the Denver and New York newsrooms together under one 501(c)3, taking the name Chalkbeat, and expanding to two new communities — Memphis, Tennessee, and Marion County, Indiana.

The result: We’ve reported thousands of stories, reaching hundreds of thousands of people each month. And those stories have brought people together. Armed with a common understanding of what’s happening on the ground in school and communities, as well as in the halls of power, Chalkbeat readers have turned knowledge into action, doing what they can to make schools better.

Because of our reporting, lawmakers in Indiana learned about the growing disconnect between the number of students who come to school not speaking English and services to support them. And in response, they doubled funding for English language learner services. Because of our reporting, parents in Memphis learned about plans to close their schools and why officials thought that was necessary, and they mobilized to learn more and take action. Because of our reporting, New York educators learned about a policy that would weaken high school graduation standards — and the state Board of Regents responded by studying it. Because of our reporting, Denver school board members learned about serious challenges facing principals that were affecting families, and they took steps to make sure principals had better support.

Along the way, our work has always been a community effort. Our readers help steer the questions we ask, the people we reach out to, and the donations that help us keep our work going. We can’t do any of this without you, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Which brings me back to stories. As I said upfront, in the weeks ahead, we’ll be asking you to tell your stories of navigating Detroit’s public schools. I’ve kicked us off by telling you about Chalkbeat. And today, the two leaders of our Detroit team, Julie Topping and Erin Einhorn, tell their stories. I hope you’ll read their bravely honest personal essays, published today in honor of our launch.

Our commitment to Detroit

The last thing I want to share is the most important, and that’s the commitment we make to you, our new Detroit readers, going forward. The commitments are rooted in Chalkbeat’s core values — the kind of corporate mumbo jumbo many of us skeptical reporters quietly rolled our eyes at before we started Chalkbeat, but which we now see are vital to rooting any enterprise in what matters most.

We share these commitments with you today as we get started because we want to hold ourselves accountable to them. We also share them because we want you, our readers, the people who care most about the future of education in Detroit, to hold us accountable to them.

Here are our commitments:

  • 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 Detroit for as long as we can sustain our work — 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.

That point about openness — we mean it. We want to hear from you. Please reach out with story ideas, feedback, and questions. Sign up for our newsletter, if you haven’t already. And stay tuned for details soon about an exciting event we’re holding this winter to introduce ourselves in person. We’re looking forward to getting to know you better.

With gratitude,

Elizabeth

the starting line

Chalkbeat’s launching a newsletter all about early childhood. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

Our newest newsletter is called The Starting Line, and it’s all about early childhood — those brain-building years from birth to 8 years old.

As the Chalkbeat team has grown over the last five years, so has our coverage of early childhood education. Now, we’re making an even bigger investment in the topic with a monthly newsletter that will feature key early childhood stories from Chalkbeat as well as other news outlets.

In recent months, we’ve written stories about new child care rules that could threaten funding for hundreds of Illinois providers, Teach For America’s efforts to mint preschool teachers in Colorado, and discussions among Indiana leaders about where to find the money for new preschool seats.

Our goal is to keep you informed about broad policy issues in the early childhood world while also sharing on-the-ground stories that provide a window into how it all plays out in the lives of real people.

Expect to see the first issue of The Starting Line in early November. And remember to let us know what you think as it takes shape. If there’s a compelling early childhood topic, trend or study you’d like us to dig into, or an early childhood leader we should profile, let us know.

If you’re interested in receiving The Starting Line, sign up below. Then, send this link to a friend or colleague who cares about early childhood issues, too.

Finally, for those of you who want even more Chalkbeat, we have a ton of other newsletters as well: local dispatches from each of our bureaus — Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter, one designed especially for teachers, and a Spanish-language roundup out of Colorado. Sign up for all our newsletters here.

Inside Chalkbeat

‘If they know we regularly care’: Our New York bureau and its newest reporter are listening up

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high-fives students at P.S. 78 on Staten Island as they leave after the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

A new name has been popping up at Chalkbeat as our organization continues to grow, and the byline belongs to Reema Amin.

This latest addition to the New York reporting team, which I began overseeing as bureau chief in September, was off to attend her first press conference — held by the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers union chief — before her first day on the job had ended.

She was instrumental to our reporting on the teachers contract, announced last week, and has already visited Albany, where she will be reporting occasionally on state education policy. Like all members of the New York bureau, she contributed this week to our joint reporting project with ProPublica, exploring whether counselors in New York City schools can really meet students’ needs, especially as student homelessness has reached an all-time high.

Chalkbeat reporter Reema Amin

And most recently, she looked at how a proposed rule change by the Department of Homeland Security could, if adopted, discourage immigrant families from applying for benefits, such as Medicaid, which in turn could threaten the financial viability of the city’s school-based health clinics.  

Reema grew up in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, and has worked as a breaking-news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She most recently covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press, a newspaper serving communities in the southeastern corner of the state, and co-hosted a politics podcast for the paper.

In Virginia, Reema had just begun covering a rural county when she happened to attend a school board meeting and noticed a distraught mother, whom no one was listening to. Reema did listen. Jessica Leitch had been struggling to get her autistic son the special education services he needed — and qualified for.

Parents like Leitch, Reema said, “keep meticulous records” — they must to advocate for their children. Using this paper trail to start her own investigation, Reema sought out other parents and made public records requests and soon was combing through hundreds of pages of documents to uncover how the district led the region in special education complaints.

One of Reema’s key strategies as a reporter, she says, is to keep in touch with as many different people — parents, teachers, students, education officials and policymakers — as possible on a daily basis. “If they know we regularly care,” she says, “they’re more likely to share” their own experiences and concerns, a philosophy Chalkbeat also embraces.

Reema is joining a veteran Chalkbeat news team in New York.

Reporter Christina Veiga, who joined the bureau in 2016 from the Miami Herald, where she worked for more than a half-dozen years covering city government and later the Miami-Dade Schools, has kept Chalkbeat readers apprised of the latest news about the schools chancellor, the debate over the admissions process to the city’s specialized high schools, and the unfolding push for greater integration in districts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.

Alex Zimmerman, who has written for the Village Voice, the Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among other publications, also joined Chalkbeat in 2016. He has reported on the specialized high school debate, on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal and community schools program, the largest of its kind in the country, and whether heavy investments in wraparound social services in schools can really move the needle on students’ academic achievement. He has also provided occasional dispatches from the city’s charter-school sector and explored the challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Our story editor, Carrie Melago, works with me editing stories and helping guide coverage (as well as serving as story editor for our Indiana bureau). Carrie previously honed her sharp news instincts as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.

My own interest in education began in New York and later Newark, cities where I taught taught for seven years. (I’m also the story editor for Chalkbeat’s Newark bureau.)  Inequities I witnessed as a teacher inspired me to write about these experiences, which in time led to my reporting on education for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Over these same years, the city’s schools — and education nationally — have experienced seismic shifts. In my first classroom in the 1990s, teachers still wrote with chalk, there was no school email or classroom computers. Now teachers can plan lessons — or marches — on Facebook; parents can vent about busing woes on Twitter, and students are regularly part of the online discussion. And some things we really wish had changed haven’t: rates of childhood poverty, homelessness and segregation.

In the New York bureau, we will be tackling some of these subjects anew or as part of our ongoing reporting. We will be making deliberate efforts to engage more with the communities we cover and to amplify their voices. Christina will be looking deeper into one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives — his push to rapidly expand early-childhood education. And building on Reema’s and Alex’s past reporting on students with disabilities, we will be taking a harder look at special education in the city. And as classrooms remain the heart of any school, we will be spending more time there. We want to hear from you –whether you are a teacher, a parent, a student, or those responsible for imagining and implementing education policy. Stay tuned for news of our first listening tour, where we come to you to hear your concerns and questions, so we can then go out and address them through our reporting.  

We welcome feedback — about the stories we’ve done, the stories we’re doing and those we’ve missed and should now pursue. You can always reach out to ny.tips@chalkbeat.org. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to one or all of our newsletters. We look forward to the continuing conversation.