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

Chalkbeat

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.