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.

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Meet us

Chalkbeat Chicago reporter Adeshina Emmanuel on race, public schools, and “tough love” in CPS

Last week, I gave you an overview of our plans for Chalkbeat Chicago and shared an inside look at our first community event in Washington Park. (Stay tuned: Several more community events are on the way.) Today, I’m excited to offer a deeper introduction to my first hire: Adeshina Emmanuel, an Uptown native who is a Chicago Public Schools grad. Ever want to talk public schools? Adeshina attended five CPS schools, graduating in 2007 from Friedrich Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center.

Adeshina has been plenty busy since then: staff jobs at the Chicago Sun-Times, DNAinfo Chicago, and the Chicago Reporter; writing for Chicago magazine, In These Times, Ebony, the Chicago Reader, and Columbia Journalism Review; and leading in-depth reporting projects through City Bureau, a Chicago civic journalism lab. His writing and reporting about race and class is insightful and honest, and I’m excited to be working alongside him to tell the complex story of Chicago public education.

Since he’s the new guy, I asked him to answer a few questions about himself and his approach to the education beat.

You’ve primarily been writing about race and class in Chicago. Why are you diving so deeply into education at this point in your career?

It’s a natural progression. This new role gives me the opportunity to examine race and class through the lens of education, while connecting the dots to politics, finance, and other forces shaping our public school and charter systems. We can’t have a serious conversation about American inequality without considering how these dynamics help shape and manifest in public educational institutions such as CPS, especially in an infamously segregated and racially problematic city like Chicago.

You’re a graduate of Chicago Public Schools. Looking back as an adult, how would you describe your experiences?

CPS was far from perfect—but I wouldn’t be the journalist, or person, I am today without a lot of the guidance, love, and tough love from the schools I attended. That includes students, principals, assistant principals, school disciplinarians, teachers, teachers assistants, security guards, school counselors, basketball coaches, and more.

I won’t get into my whole CPS journey. But there’s a crucial moment I’d like to share. It’s a story about how one selective-enrollment school in Lake View pushed me out and how a neighborhood school in Uptown took me in—and helped shape who I am.

Third grade was a rough year for me. I was an emotional and outspoken know-it-all who clashed often with his teacher and spent a lot of time in the office accused of disobeying authority. My greatest nemesis—if a third-grader can really have a nemesis—was a sixth-grade boy who was in my older sister’s homeroom and rode the school bus with us. He had a habit of making suggestive and demeaning comments to her. The bully and I had fought one-on-one at least twice, and he beat me up pretty bad both times. I never told my parents or anybody at school.

One day, he touched my sister—again—as we rode the school bus home. We confronted the bully with some friends, and, this time, our clash got back to officials at our school. We were pressured to find another school.

My mom decided on our neighborhood school, Joseph Stockton Elementary (now Courtenay, after a 2013 consolidation). At Stockton, I found a sense of family that had been lacking at my previous school. The teachers and administrators knew my mother, and many of the mothers at the school knew each other from the neighborhood.

At Stockton, I fell in love with the written word. I remember my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Simmons, who was one of the first to encourage my craft. My fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Zaccor, challenged me with books beyond my grade level like Native Son and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My basketball coach, Mr. Yolich, taught me about hard work and self-discipline both in the classroom and on the court. Yolich, who grew up in Uptown like me and was very involved in the community, was well put together, respectful and laid back—but blunt—and I looked up to him as a role model.

These are just some of the people at CPS who have changed my life for the better and taught me the power of a loving and engaged school community.

What do you think is missing in the conversation about Chicago education?

I wouldn’t say these things are missing, just that we need them to be more prominent in our conversation.

We need to talk more—and with more honesty—about the ways that racism and other forms of systemic oppression have affected schools historically and today. We need more discussion about the link between poverty, trauma and violence in youth. We need to take a more intersectional view of the forces students face when they hail from various marginalized groups or identities, especially gender nonconforming people, immigrants, students with mental illness, and students with disabilities. We need more of a solutions approach to the conversation about Chicago education—and to not simply call out issues. We need more continuous focus on the resilience, imagination, and courage exercised by students and educators pushing for solutions to problems in education, not just when there’s a headline grabbing event like a walkout, a school closing or a hunger strike. Everyday efforts can be both empowering and instructive.

What is your philosophy about engaging the communities that you cover?

Be present, listen, collaborate, and report back.

I approach community engagement with an open ear for how people describe their relationship with institutions, their personal histories, and how their stories relate to both the history of their community and the history of the institutions that serve the area. I also want to take stock of what’s working, what’s not working, and what they feel they need to solve their problems. Each person’s perspective is like a thread. It’s my job as a journalist to help weave these threads into a narrative.

How can readers reach you?

On Twitter, @public_ade, and via email, at aemmanuel@chalkbeat.org. Or, if you see me, say hi. I’ll be out there.