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 brows furrow. “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.

An Introduction

Indiana education is evolving. Here’s how Chalkbeat is growing to keep you informed.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools students line up at CFI 27.

When I first came to Indianapolis eight years ago, the failures of the city’s largest school district were on full display.

Indianapolis Public Schools was losing thousands of students to township, charter, and private schools. The continued dismal performance of several district schools put them on the brink of unprecedented state takeover.

Marion County was home to so many children living in poverty that they could fill the Indianapolis Colts’ football stadium, the local newspaper calculated, and then form a line outside it more than three miles long.

Among the first people I met in the city was an Indianapolis teacher who went Dumpster-diving at suburban schools for classroom supplies.

Still, the city was coming together in critical ways to support students and schools. Nonprofit organizations filled gaping needs, with school supplies, uniforms, and mentoring services. Education leaders searched for solutions as small-scale as targeted neighborhood initiatives and as big-picture as completely making over the entire school district.

Today, there’s a lot that has changed — and a lot that hasn’t. People across the state are re-thinking public education. Yet in many places, our students, teachers, and schools continue to face many of the same challenges.

I recently joined Chalkbeat as the new Indiana bureau chief to lead our coverage of the city’s schools and the state’s education policy landscape.

I’m coming from the Indianapolis Star, where I reported on education, politics, and diversity issues. I’d collaborated with Chalkbeat on stories about school integration and English-language learners.

I’ll be overseeing the work of our Chalkbeat Indiana reporting team: Shaina Cavazos covers state education policy, dissecting complex legislation and the politics that drive changes. Shaina has been investigating the underperforming Indiana Virtual School, raising ethical questions about its spending of public dollars, and revealing it hired few teachers and graduated few students.

Reporter Dylan Peers McCoy has been following the dramatic changes as Indianapolis Public Schools embraces charter partnerships, turning over control of some of its schools to outside groups.

I’ll also be contributing my own reporting, with a focus on charter schools and Indiana’s recent moves to publicly fund early childhood education, a topic that has gained greater attention with research showing how critical a child’s first years are to future academic success.

We’ll continue to do what Chalkbeat has always strived to do: provide strong, independent, in-depth coverage of efforts to improve public education for all kids, especially those from low-income families.

Please let me know about stories you’d like to see us write, or share feedback about anything our team has written. We’d love to hear from you.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@chalkbeat.org.

Holiday Reading

Here are five Chalkbeat stories to read this Presidents Day

PHOTO: Getty Images
A statue of George Washington with the American flag in the background in front of Independence Hall.

Happy Presidents Day! We’re off today, and we hope you’re enjoying a three-day weekend too.

I’m planning to spend part of today catching up on Chalkbeat stories. Since last summer, when I started as executive editor, I’ve felt like a student again. I’ve never worked in education journalism before, so I’ve tried to read as much as I can — and there’s no better place to start than Chalkbeat’s reporting.

In honor of the holiday celebrating George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and our other past presidents, I’ve rounded up a special reading list — for myself and for you, our trusted Chalkbeat community.

Two stories that take place in schools named after U.S. presidents:

Why one Brooklyn high school is making a big bet on teacher training

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

Two stories about local education leaders (even though they probably won’t ever get a national holiday in their honor):

Can this Detroit principal help her students learn quickly enough to save her school?

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

And one recent story that has nothing to do with Presidents Day but is so terrific I had to include it:

Tight-knit and tightly budgeted: Inside one of Denver’s smallest schools

-Bene

P.S. Got other education stories you think I should read? Send them my way!