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.

Inside Chalkbeat

‘If they know we regularly care’: Our New York bureau and its newest reporter are listening up

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high-fives students at P.S. 78 on Staten Island as they leave after the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

A new name has been popping up at Chalkbeat as our organization continues to grow, and the byline belongs to Reema Amin.

This latest addition to the New York reporting team, which I began overseeing as bureau chief in September, was off to attend her first press conference — held by the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers union chief — before her first day on the job had ended.

She was instrumental to our reporting on the teachers contract, announced last week, and has already visited Albany, where she will be reporting occasionally on state education policy. Like all members of the New York bureau, she contributed this week to our joint reporting project with ProPublica, exploring whether counselors in New York City schools can really meet students’ needs, especially as student homelessness has reached an all-time high.

Chalkbeat reporter Reema Amin

And most recently, she looked at how a proposed rule change by the Department of Homeland Security could, if adopted, discourage immigrant families from applying for benefits, such as Medicaid, which in turn could threaten the financial viability of the city’s school-based health clinics.  

Reema grew up in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, and has worked as a breaking-news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She most recently covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press, a newspaper serving communities in the southeastern corner of the state, and co-hosted a politics podcast for the paper.

In Virginia, Reema had just begun covering a rural county when she happened to attend a school board meeting and noticed a distraught mother, whom no one was listening to. Reema did listen. Jessica Leitch had been struggling to get her autistic son the special education services he needed — and qualified for.

Parents like Leitch, Reema said, “keep meticulous records” — they must to advocate for their children. Using this paper trail to start her own investigation, Reema sought out other parents and made public records requests and soon was combing through hundreds of pages of documents to uncover how the district led the region in special education complaints.

One of Reema’s key strategies as a reporter, she says, is to keep in touch with as many different people — parents, teachers, students, education officials and policymakers — as possible on a daily basis. “If they know we regularly care,” she says, “they’re more likely to share” their own experiences and concerns, a philosophy Chalkbeat also embraces.

Reema is joining a veteran Chalkbeat news team in New York.

Reporter Christina Veiga, who joined the bureau in 2016 from the Miami Herald, where she worked for more than a half-dozen years covering city government and later the Miami-Dade Schools, has kept Chalkbeat readers apprised of the latest news about the schools chancellor, the debate over the admissions process to the city’s specialized high schools, and the unfolding push for greater integration in districts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.

Alex Zimmerman, who has written for the Village Voice, the Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among other publications, also joined Chalkbeat in 2016. He has reported on the specialized high school debate, on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal and community schools program, the largest of its kind in the country, and whether heavy investments in wraparound social services in schools can really move the needle on students’ academic achievement. He has also provided occasional dispatches from the city’s charter-school sector and explored the challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Our story editor, Carrie Melago, works with me editing stories and helping guide coverage (as well as serving as story editor for our Indiana bureau). Carrie previously honed her sharp news instincts as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.

My own interest in education began in New York and later Newark, cities where I taught taught for seven years. (I’m also the story editor for Chalkbeat’s Newark bureau.)  Inequities I witnessed as a teacher inspired me to write about these experiences, which in time led to my reporting on education for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Over these same years, the city’s schools — and education nationally — have experienced seismic shifts. In my first classroom in the 1990s, teachers still wrote with chalk, there was no school email or classroom computers. Now teachers can plan lessons — or marches — on Facebook; parents can vent about busing woes on Twitter, and students are regularly part of the online discussion. And some things we really wish had changed haven’t: rates of childhood poverty, homelessness and segregation.

In the New York bureau, we will be tackling some of these subjects anew or as part of our ongoing reporting. We will be making deliberate efforts to engage more with the communities we cover and to amplify their voices. Christina will be looking deeper into one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives — his push to rapidly expand early-childhood education. And building on Reema’s and Alex’s past reporting on students with disabilities, we will be taking a harder look at special education in the city. And as classrooms remain the heart of any school, we will be spending more time there. We want to hear from you –whether you are a teacher, a parent, a student, or those responsible for imagining and implementing education policy. Stay tuned for news of our first listening tour, where we come to you to hear your concerns and questions, so we can then go out and address them through our reporting.  

We welcome feedback — about the stories we’ve done, the stories we’re doing and those we’ve missed and should now pursue. You can always reach out to ny.tips@chalkbeat.org. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to one or all of our newsletters. We look forward to the continuing conversation.

Inside Chalkbeat

Meet the talented people who will help us push Chalkbeat into the future

As the new school year kicks off, we’re both looking forward and looking back.

This has been a significant year for us. We covered important stories, broke big news, and launched coverage in two new cities, Newark and Chicago. We also expanded our team. We’re now one of the country’s largest nonprofit newsrooms, and certainly one of the largest telling local stories — at a time when local coverage is shrinking across the country.

In the year ahead, we will continue to tell the story of education in America by investigating both local realities and the national trends that shape them. We kicked things off this summer with a listening tour (stay tuned for more of what we heard at those events). We’re also taking some big steps toward strengthening the other parts of our work. We’re going to further diversify our revenue so we can guarantee the very best and always entirely independent coverage of public schools for a long time to come. We’re going to invest in technology and design, to help us reach and engage more readers. And we’re going to chart a clear path for the significant growth we need to take on to step up to the challenges of the times.

To do that, we’ve brought on a new cohort of leaders in the news business. I am so thrilled to introduce Maria Archangelo, our new senior director of partnerships, who will lead the charge in diversifying and growing our revenue; Becca Aaronson, our new director of product, who will guide strategic investment in our core technology and internal capabilities; and Alison Go, who is working with us to design Chalkbeat’s growth plan.

We are also expanding our national team with the addition of Francisco Vara-Orta as a national reporter and data specialist for Chalkbeat. Francisco’s skills will give Chalkbeat the ability to more closely cover several organizations working to influence schools nationwide and enable us to better use data to find and tell stories in all of Chalkbeat’s bureaus.

 

Maria Archangelo

Photo: Alan Petersime

Maria comes to Chalkbeat after working as publisher and executive director of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a 24-year-old nonprofit education news organization. Most of her 30-year career has been spent in traditional media. She worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and an editor at the Sun’s community newspapers, and was editor of the daily newspaper in the capital of Vermont. Dismayed by the changes in the industry, Maria decided to devote herself to growing revenue for journalism and joined the business side. From 2006 to 2012 she served as publisher of the award-winning Stowe Reporter in Stowe, VT. She also helped lead an innovative international community magazine project and took a (brief) side trip into communications and marketing. She graduated from Temple University with bachelor of arts in journalism.

Becca Aaronson

Photo Alan Petersime

Before Chalkbeat, Becca spent nearly eight years at fellow nonprofit news organization The Texas Tribune, where she was their first-ever product manager. She was responsible for creating and managing the Tribune’s product roadmap, leading their website redesign, conducting user research, and ensuring that technology products aligned with audience and brand strategy. Over the course of her Tribune tenure, she wore many hats, including softball coach of The Runoffs. She co-founded the Tribune’s data visuals team, where she designed, built, and managed several award-winning investigative projects. And while covering health care from 2012 to 2014, she gained 5,000 Twitter followers on the day she live-tweeted the Wendy Davis abortion filibuster. Becca has a bachelor’s degree in cultural theory from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif.

Alison Go

Alison is working on growth initiatives across various teams at Chalkbeat. Previously, she was a product manager at Facebook, Amazon (Audible), and Rent the Runway, and in a former life, she was a journalist at U.S. News & World Report (covering higher ed!), the Boston Globe, and the San Jose Mercury News. Alison received her MBA from Wharton and undergrad degree from the University of Michigan.

Francisco Vara-Orta

Francisco joins Chalkbeat in September as a national reporter and data specialist. He was previously at Education Week, where he covered philanthropy and parent engagement and managed data projects, and an open records researcher at Investigative Reporters and Editors. Before that, he reported for the San Antonio Express-News, Houston Chronicle, and the Austin Business Journal, among other news organizations. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in his hometown of San Antonio, and earned a master’s degree in data and investigative journalism from Mizzou as a Thurgood Marshall Fellow. Follow him @fvaraorta.