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 brow furrows. “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.


Coming soon (and hiring now): Chalkbeat in Chicago and Newark

Top: Chicago skyline via Flickr/Carroll. Bottom: Newark via Wikimedia Commons/Jamaalcobbs

Dear readers,

We have some exciting news: After hearing from community leaders across the country, we’ve selected the next two places where we’ll launch Chalkbeat coverage.

By early 2018 — just a year after launching in Detroit, our fifth city — we’ll have Chalkbeat coverage in Chicago and Newark, New Jersey.

The timing couldn’t be better. Both Chicago and Newark are in the midst of sweeping changes with far-reaching consequences for students and families, educators, and communities.

Chicago is living an education paradox: Poverty, violence, and deep segregation present steep challenges for students, their families, and their schools. After a last-minute budget deal, the city school district remains on the brink of financial disaster. At the same time, Chicago boasts one of the fastest-improving big city school systems in the nation, a conclusion so unexpected that a Stanford researcher double-checked his work before confirming it.

Amid these highs and lows, Chicago’s public schools face a slew of changes at every level of the school system. In the K-12 system, school closures and bureaucratic overhauls have made a complicated system more confusing for many families. City officials also want to lead the country by dramatically growing the number of children enrolled in public prekindergarten, and, controversially, by not allowing students to graduate unless they have a plan for what to do next.

In Newark, meanwhile, an effort to overhaul the local schools with performance pay for teachers and more charter schools — driven in part by Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation in 2010 — initially led to a three-year test score decline that has recently bounced back and turned positive in English, according to a new study.

Today, one third of Newark students are enrolled in charter schools, one of the highest percentages in the country. The school district, meanwhile, is returning to the control of a locally elected school board after years of being run by state-appointed managers. As we’re seeing in Detroit, where a similar transition is underway, the shift to local control comes with great optimism — and high stakes.

Both cities have important stories that the whole country can learn from. But while there are talented journalists producing great stories about education in both Chicago and Newark, both cities lack the depth of coverage they will need to navigate so much change.

Chicago recently lost a longtime news source dedicated to covering schools, Catalyst. And the two major Chicago newspapers have seen their reporting teams diminish significantly, in keeping with trends in newsrooms across the country. The local public radio station, WBEZ, has admirably stepped up to fill gaps, creating a dedicated education reporting team. But there is much more in-depth daily reporting to be done.

In Newark, the local newspaper, the Star-Ledger, has also seen its reporting resources diminish in recent years. And while a laudable nonprofit news organization, NJ Spotlight, has offered thoughtful and high-impact coverage of education across New Jersey, dedicated education coverage by and for Newark has been unsettlingly scarce, especially for a city that is so often in the national headlines.

Community leaders in Chicago and Newark asked us to launch Chalkbeat coverage in their cities because they want to change that. So do we. As we expand our coverage, our goal is to scrutinize and explain what’s changing, what’s working, and what’s at stake as the cities’ schools transform. Readers in Chicago and Newark also deserve to hear — and share — firsthand accounts of the parents, students, and teachers who are living through the changes.

For Chalkbeat’s readers in our five existing locations and across the country, the expansion means that we’ll be connecting even more local dots through our national coverage. Our new national newsletter — sign up now!— will be a great place to read the highlights from Chicago and Newark and learn how how they fit into the unfolding national story of efforts to improve education for poor children.

The growth also means that we’re hiring. We’re already looking to fill two new positions, story editor and Detroit reporter, and have some other roles open, too. Now, we’re opening searches for someone to lead our team in Chicago and a senior reporter in Newark, where we’re launching a one-year pilot as we explore more permanent coverage. If you or someone you know is a fit for any of these positions, let us know now. We are lucky to work with some of the most talented journalists in the country, and we can’t wait to expand our team.

And for our future readers in Chicago and Newark — we won’t be able to do this without you. If you have ideas for us, feel free to reach out now. You can also sign up here to to get updates about our launches in Chicago, Newark, or both.

This post has been updated to more accurately describe the findings of a recent study of Newark school reforms.

Student count

Aurora school enrollment continues sharp decline, but budget woes not expected

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The number of students enrolled in Aurora schools this fall dropped by almost twice as much as last year, part of a trend district officials have blamed in part on gentrification as housing prices in Aurora climb.

This year, as of Oct. 2, the district has enrolled 41,294 students from preschool through 12th grade. That’s 867 fewer students than last year — and almost twice the number of students lost between 2015 and 2016.

Last October, staff told the board that district enrollment had dropped by a historic amount. At the time, enrollment was 41,926, down 643 from 2015. By the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district had enrolled almost 200 more students.

But in Colorado, school districts are given money on a per-student count that’s based on the number of students enrolled on count day, which this year was Oct. 2.

The district expects to see a similar decline in students again next school year, but expects that new developments start bringing more children to the district in the future.

The good news, provided in the update given to the Aurora school board Tuesday night, is that district officials saw it coming this time.

“The magnitude of the impact is not the same as last year,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “This kind of decline is now something we will predict and budget to.”

Because enrollment numbers are higher than what officials predicted, the budget that the board approved over the summer should not need adjustments for the current year.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools had to cut more than $3 million in the middle of the year. District officials also worked on gathering input and finding ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by up to $31 million, but better than expected funding from the state meant the district didn’t end up cutting the full $31 million.

The district may look for ways to trim the budget again next year in anticipation of another anticipated enrollment decline.

Board members asked about other factors that may be contributing to enrollment declines, such as school reputations, and asked about how staff predict future enrollment.

Superintendent Munn told the board that the enrollment decreases are changing several conversations in the district.

“APS was not in the business of marketing our schools,” Munn said. But this year, the district launched an interactive map with school information on the district website to help feature all schools, their programs and their performance measures, and has been doing outreach to the approximately 4,000 Aurora students who leave to attend neighboring districts.

Three schools also received district-level help in creating targeted marketing.

One of those three schools was South Middle School, a low-performing school in the northwest part of the district where enrollment declines are especially drastic.

This year, after receiving some marketing assistance, South was one of few schools in the district that saw enrollment increased. The school’s Oct. 2 enrollment was 825, up from 734 last year.