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

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!