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.

listening tour

Tour notes: What we heard when we listened to our communities in a new way

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
At a Chalkbeat Indiana listening session, kids made their own fun.

As with many initiatives at Chalkbeat, the idea started in one location. Our seventh bureau had just launched in Chicago, and our first order of business was to introduce ourselves to the city. But our new bureau chief, Cassie Walker Burke, knew we had to listen as well as speak.

She proposed a listening tour — a roving set of sessions where our top priority would be empowering our audience to share with us. The launch went so well that our entire news organization took up the initiative this summer and fall, holding 14 events in six locations across our network.

A deep belief in engagement has been encoded into Chalkbeat’s DNA from its founding in 2013, and it was one of the aspects that drew me to join the organization last year as executive editor. Our core values include putting down roots in local communities, and working with and for readers. We track shares, retweets, and readership the same as any other publication, but we are most committed to driving impact: bringing stories, people, and stakes alive for readers so they can engage in informed action and debate.

Before our readers can go out there and make their voices heard, we have to listen — to their concerns, their questions, and their critiques of our coverage. We’ve heard from parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, education wonks, legislators, and policymakers since the beginning, and we have appreciated and used their insights. But it’s a constant work in progress. Especially because we report for people who have historically lacked access to a quality education, we always aim to amplify and empower new voices.

Setting off on a listening tour, starting in Chicago and spreading out across our other local markets, emerged as the perfect strategy to make this happen.

Our goals

Before we set out on our tour, we identified four goals for the project. This also helped us think through how to structure the “stops” on the tour, as well as how to measure success.

  1. Generate story ideas
  2. Build and diversify our source network
  3. Deepen the understanding of the Chalkbeat brand as community-oriented
  4. Deepen community participation

The planning process

We shied away from a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing each bureau to tailor the program to fit their needs. An action force that included at least one representative from each bureau met regularly to discuss progress. That group designed a worksheet to help teams organize their listening sessions: by topic, by audience, by location, or by some combination of the three approaches. In some cases, we decided to center listening sessions around topics we knew we wanted to focus enterprise reporting on in the coming year.

We invited engagement-minded folks from other media organizations to share their expertise with us, too. Alexandra Smith of Whereby.Us, Ashley Alvarado from KPCC, and Jesse Hardman from Listening Post Collective helped us mightily during the planning process, answering our questions and offering suggestions. We also partnered with community organizations on the ground to help with logistics, audience-building, and trust. By seeking out established organizations to co-sponsor events, we signaled to potential attendees — especially those who were new to Chalkbeat — that we were to be trusted too.

The results

Chalkbeat put on a total of 14 events across six out of our seven markets (one bureau sat out for logistical reasons), with most teams executing one or two events. Chicago went all-in with seven listening tour stops as part of the bureau’s launch efforts. Here are some other key results:

  • Nearly 400 attendees in total
  • 84 percent hadn’t read Chalkbeat before
  • More than 70 story ideas
  • Close to 150 new sources
  • About 220 email subscribers

In our newer bureaus, we got a lot of questions about our organization: How are we funded? What do we cover? Why and how can our readers participate? In our more established markets, we were able to home in on audiences we wanted to reach in a more targeted way, and topics the community was passionate about.

Following up

Listening is great, but we knew that if we did not carry forward what we heard, we would be failing our readers. So we made sure to follow up by emailing participants to thank them and publishing posts after events when it made sense. Michigan Radio covered one of our Detroit sessions, our Newark bureau designed a survey to keep the conversation going, and Denver used a feedback form to solicit input on how the sessions went. We also used a text-messaging platform, GroundSource, to follow up with attendees in Memphis.

We’re continuing to sort through the 70+ story ideas we gathered, and using those to inform some meaty enterprise work. Whenever we publish stories that tie back to the listening tour, we’ll inform participants. We’re also planning to designate stories on our site that emerged from community conversations, so all our readers have proof that we’re not just listening, we’re acting on what we hear. And we know that listening isn’t a one-time event. We’re keeping up with our tour participants throughout the year to keep the cycle going, so we can report for their communities even better.

One powerful quote from a Memphis reader drove it home. It reminded us that the hard work that went into this project — planning, wrangling logistics, making it happen on a nonprofit budget — was all worth it, and intentionally listening to our communities makes our journalism stronger.

“It was really inspiring to be a part of this. It was also really empowering, like what we say doesn’t just go into some black hole. You’re here and listening.”

— Chalkbeat Tennessee listening tour attendee

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.