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.


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.