introducing ourselves

Two decades ago I opted out of public schools in Detroit for my family. Now I’m choosing to focus on them

Julie and her son, courtesy Julie Topping.

Chalkbeat is launching in Detroit. As we kick off an extended conversation about schools in the city, we want to introduce ourselves. Here, meet Julie Topping, a longtime Detroit resident and former Detroit Free Press editor who has joined us as our editor. Also: Get to know Erin Einhorn, our reporter, and read a letter from CEO Elizabeth Green about why we’re putting down roots.

What my colleague was asking for was not totally unreasonable.

A well-managed school. A safe school. A diverse school. Communication and trust between parents, students and educators. And a clear pathway to solid learning.

But we were in Detroit. It can be hard to find any of those things, let alone all of them, in any school system. Finding them here is even less likely.

I learned as much when I searched for a school for my son 23 years ago. There have been many changes in Detroit schools since then, but the problem of being a parent here is essentially the same. As I talked with Chalkbeat editor and reporter Erin Einhorn, it struck me like a slap across the face. She’s going through what I did — and it’s a shame.

In 1994, as now, Detroit public schools faced steep challenges: chronic absenteeism, severe teacher shortages, buildings in poor repair, the need for more innovation and a stronger academic program. Then, as now, many educators worked hard to serve students with significant needs. Then, as now, some schools had loyal followings among families.

And then, as now, many families with the means to do so looked beyond the public school system when choosing schools for their children.

That’s what I did in 1994, when as a newly promoted editor at the Detroit Free Press, I set out to find a school for my son. In those days, charter schools were barely a spot on Detroit’s map. Private schools were the main option as an alternative to the former school district, Detroit Public Schools, and that’s where I began my search.

Because my husband had died of lung cancer on my son’s fourth birthday, I wanted him to be able to look up to black male teachers in the classroom. None of the private schools I visited had any. Some didn’t even have African American women teachers.

I did not want my son to feel like a cockroach, which is what he told me once when he was the only black player on a neighborhood Grosse Pointe boys basketball team.

One white admissions counselor at a very tiny private school in a Detroit suburb told me how fortunate I was that I lived near the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe Park and didn’t have to send my son to Detroit schools. That was one of the schools with no African American teachers. We decided against it.

Ultimately, after a tip from the owner of his preschool, I found a very small Episcopal school called Herlong Cathedral school, which was run by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Detroit. (The school is now closed.) There was a racial mix of teachers. The curriculum was thorough, consistent, and the classes were small. It seemed safe. My son thrived there, and went on to graduate from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. He is now in his last year of law school at the University of Michigan. I guess you could say it all worked out for us.

But it hasn’t worked out so well for Detroit and most of its families. Its traditional school system has shrunk to the smallest it has ever been — not even 49,000 students, down from 1995, when there were more than 158,000 students in DPS.

The year 1995 is important because it was the start of Proposal A, which based school funding on the number of students attending the district. As the economy took a downturn and people fled urban areas in the 2000s, this funding system had a devastating effect on Detroit, which saw its school population plummet, and the dollars followed. It is part of the reason Detroit finances are so challenged today.

The sad state of urban schools was not something I was unfamiliar with as I embarked to educate my own son. My mother was a dedicated, hardworking seventh-grade English teacher in Toledo, Ohio. Toledo, about an hour’s drive from Detroit, was a smaller urban district, the same district where I went to school in the 1960s. A district that lacked books and supplies and often didn’t have substitute teachers when needed. A place where I would come home covered in food after a cafeteria fight, where I can point to gaps in my education because of a lack of teachers and books. Elementary school is where I saw a teacher fight off a student who probably didn’t like something she had to say. She limped away in a daze with her hair and clothes twisted and in disarray. He was pulled away swinging.

That was in the 1960s. My son graduated in 2007. It is now 2017.

So when Erin told me about a new effort she was launching to use our chosen professional tools — journalism — to do something about giving Detroit schools the attention and care they deserve, I jumped at the opportunity. I joined Chalkbeat full time earlier this month as our Detroit editor, working with Erin and the rest of the Chalkbeat team to create sustained, local reporting about the challenges Detroit faces — and the many local efforts to tackle those challenges.

I was comfortable with my decision in 1994. After two decades, as a journalist and as a parent, I can look back and feel I made the right choice. Today, I would consider Detroit schools as I searched the landscape for the right spot for my son. But I don’t know what I would choose.

I do know that schools are changing, the city is changing, and local education coverage is changing. It has never meant more to be part of it all.

Q&A

Coming soon: Meet Patrick Wall, our reporter in Newark

PHOTO: Janet Upadhye/DNAinfo
Patrick reporting in the Bronx in 2013.

Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s CEO and editor-in-chief, introduces Chalkbeat Newark’s senior reporter.

In 2011, I spent a lot of late nights reporting in Newark.

I was on assignment for a national magazine to write about the immediate aftermath of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift. As it turned out, the story never ran. But even if it had, it still wouldn’t have included half of what I learned in Newark.

Seven years later, I couldn’t be more excited to launch Chalkbeat coverage in Newark. We’re committed to doing a different kind of journalism, writing not just about but also for the community whose story we’re telling.

In Newark, we’re starting out as a year-long pilot launching March 1, with hopes to continue our work longer. We accelerated this pilot with a preview story — because this moment in time is once again significant for Newark schools, and our reporter just couldn’t wait to get started.

That reporter is the brilliant and dedicated Patrick Wall, who is in the process of setting down his own roots in Newark. Here he is, in conversation with me:

You started your career focused on one thing — teaching — and not too long after that pivoted to another — journalism. What drew you to education and teaching, and what inspired you to make the switch to writing about education rather than practicing it?

As I was graduating college I joined Teach For America, the organization that provides (brief) training to people who commit to teaching in high-needs schools. I’d actually majored in film, but I was drawn to the idea of trying to help give young people some of the same opportunities that I felt I’d been afforded through education. I strongly believed (and still do) that public education is central to everything America claims to stand for — democracy, opportunity, equality — and that the condition of our schools is a measure of our commitment to those ideals.

But I soon found that believing strongly in education and being a strong educator are two very different things. First at a charter school in Gary, Indiana, then at a district school on Chicago’s South Side, I experienced firsthand the extraordinary demands put on teachers, the limited support they receive, and how they’re forced to contend with the by-products of poverty that students carry into the classroom.

Eventually I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. As I was figuring out what to do next, I briefly ran an after-school program at a public school in a wealthy suburb in my native Ohio. The contrast between what I saw there — the cutting-edge facilities, the calm and orderly atmosphere, the students and staff who seemed to have everything they needed to function at a high level — and the inner-city school where I’d recently taught was shocking to me. I decided I wanted to understand that inequity, and tell others about it, which led me to journalism.

Welcome to Chalkbeat
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering the story of education in America. Our newest bureau is here in Newark. To get the latest on your local schools, and what changes here mean for schools across the U.S., sign up for our newsletters here. And tell us what stories you think we should be covering by filling out this brief survey here.

Your first journalism job was at DNAinfo, the late, great neighborhood news source, where you covered the South Bronx. You hadn’t ever lived in the South Bronx, and you were relatively new to New York City at that point. How did you get to know a new neighborhood with a lot of history — and where most of the residents didn’t look like you?

I tried to attend every community board meeting, precinct meeting, church festival, and school hearing that I could. I didn’t have a car, so I took the bus or walked everywhere — real “shoe-leather reporting.”

I was always aware of my identity as a white, middle-class professional in a predominantly black and Hispanic  community that’s part of the country’s poorest Congressional district. That meant constantly checking my assumptions and having a lot of humility. I was an outsider, so it was incumbent upon me to learn the local context, understand what issues mattered to the local community, and spot and try to correct my own blind spots.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it was also probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. I got to spend time with immigrant parents who’d banded together to improve their local schools, a food-justice activist who wanted to turn a school bus into a rolling farmers market, and a local rapper who performed in a psychedelic Darth Vader mask.

After working at DNAinfo, you came to Chalkbeat, where you covered New York City schools. What’s one of the most interesting stories you covered while on the New York City school beat?

Probably the series of stories about a low-performing high school in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The city had just launched a massive turnaround program that the mayor promised would transform long-struggling schools. We wanted to show what that looked like at the classroom level.

What I found were dedicated teachers and school leaders trying to move the school forward. But it sometimes felt like as they scrambled to meet an ever-growing list of demands from above, they were trying to improve everything at once but actually changing very little. All the while, their students — many of them brilliant, perceptive, and hilarious — nonetheless showed up to class tired, hungry, stressed, and overwhelmed.

The story left me daunted by the challenges facing high-poverty schools, but inspired by the people inside them.

You’re now planning to move to Newark, New Jersey, and jump onto the Newark beat. As soon as we mentioned the possibility of opening reporting in Newark, you made your passion for the city clear. What makes Newark’s education story so compelling to you?

Newark’s schools, like the city itself, have such a rich history. They’ve been subject to massive demographic changes, occasional mismanagement, and sustained efforts to improve them by civic groups and philanthropies, parents and educators, and, most recently, a hard-charging cadre of self-described reformers.

Now, the city is beginning a pivotal new chapter as it regains control of the schools after a 22-year state takeover. I’m eager to report on how the school board uses its new authority, how the charter sector continues to evolve, and how Newark’s families keep pushing for the best education possible for their children.

I couldn’t imagine a more exciting place to report on public education right now.

How can readers reach you if they want to get to know you?

My email is pwall@chalkbeat.org, and you can follow me on Twitter at @patrick_wall. Plus get all the latest updates from Chalkbeat Newark by signing up here.

I’m eager for your thoughts on stories I should write, questions I can explore, schools I should visit, and local spots I must try!

Well Fed

Bill that would provide free lunch for more Colorado students moves forward

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

A bill that would expand a state subsidy for school lunches passed the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.

Colorado already picks up the cost of school lunch for elementary-aged children who qualify for reduced-price but not free meals under the federal lunch program. This bill would expand the benefit to cover middle school students.

The five yes votes included two Republicans, state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, and state Sen. Kevin Priola of Brighton. That’s enough Republican support to get this bill out of the Senate and over to the House, where Democrats have a majority.

The state program supplements the federal school lunch program. The federal government picks up the whole cost for families who earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,980 for a family of four, and most of the cost for families who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $45,510 for a family of four. For kindergarten through fifth grade students in the latter group, the state covers the 40 cents that children who qualify for reduced-price lunch would otherwise have to pay.

School nutritionists said they see a big drop-off in students eating hot lunch in middle school, when some low-income parents become responsible for lunch fees after having them covered when their children were younger. The Cherry Creek School District, which continues to cover those fees out of its own funds, doesn’t see the same drop off.

Fabiola Flores, a junior at DSST: College View and a youth member of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, told the committee about a time she lost the loose change she carried to elementary school for lunch and was handed a hard peanut butter sandwich instead of the hot meal her classmates got.

“This bill is bigger than me,” she said. “Every day, I see students not eat because they don’t want to add fees. This bill can be the difference between a student having a hot lunch or going hungry.”

The bill would authorize the state to spend between $500,000 and $750,000 a year to pay that 40 cents for middle school students who qualify. Legislative analysts estimated the state could provide 1.4 million free lunches for $564,000 in the first year.

“We want our kids to be focused on academics and not on ‘where is my next meal coming from?’” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.

Two Republican senators, Owen Hill of Colorado Springs and Tim Neville of Littleton, voted no. Hill noted that school districts could choose to cover the extra 40 cents themselves if they saw a need.

“I support the idea, but when I look at the overall budget, the only thing that gives is K-12 education or higher ed,” he said. “In this case, if it comes out of K-12 education, it goes from one bucket to another.”