Growing Up

Chalkbeat expands: Why we’re putting down roots in Detroit, and our commitment to you as we grow

Chalkbeat is proud to announce we're now in Detroit — our fifth location!

Dear readers,

Exciting news from Chalkbeat land: Today, effective as soon as I hit “publish” on this letter, we are launching our fifth reporting site in one of this country’s most storied and vital cities — Detroit.

Our launch traces back to the fall of 2015, when I got a note from Erin Einhorn, a reporter whose scoops I chased, mostly without success, when we both covered New York City schools under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After living for years on the east coast, Erin, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs, had recently moved back to Michigan.

She wanted to talk to me about the schools in her new city, Detroit. “Parents are just completely lost trying to figure out what’s happening in schools,” she wrote. Even she, a professional finder of information, was at sea searching for schools for her own young children. Might we want to help her tackle the problem by adding news coverage to shed some light through the chaos?

A few months later, we were working with Erin to launch a test drive of Chalkbeat coverage in Detroit. We created a weekly newsletter and tried writing a few stories a month. Through 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 one of its schools — but who is now doing exactly that, driving her 4-year-old son from the suburbs to 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.

When we asked readers if this was the kind of coverage they wanted more of, the answer came back in hundreds of signups for our newsletter, tens of thousands of readings of our stories, a slew of republications by local and national media alike, and hundreds of dollars of donations to our nonprofit cause.

Then the election happened, Donald Trump nominated Michigan education activist Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education, and our exploration took on expanded purpose. If DeVos is confirmed, as appears likely to happen next week, the whole country will need to better understand the education policy changes DeVos advocated for in Michigan and the consequences they wrought for families, teachers, and communities.

One way to do that is for national newspapers and thought leaders to swoop in for a few days to study and summarize the Michigan and Detroit story — a well-intentioned parachuting that has already begun.

But the reason we created Chalkbeat is that we think there’s a better way. Because if you really want to understand a place, and serve it, you need to live there. You need to show up, day in and day out. And you need to stay, not just for the political fireworks, but through the fallout.

For all these reasons, today, with the support of local foundations, we are officially putting down roots in Detroit — just as we did in Memphis and Indianapolis back in the fall of 2013, and New York City and Colorado in 2008.

Our pledge to Detroit readers, outlined in a letter to the city’s education community that we are publishing simultaneously with this one, is the same as our pledge to you, our existing readers in Colorado, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee. Here’s the condensed version of our core values:

  • 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 each place we work for as long as we can sustain — 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.

Detroit will not be the last place we expand. Indeed, we invite members of communities where Chalkbeat doesn’t yet exist to nominate your cities, towns, and states for future coverage.

As we grow, we know our existing readers might worry that we’ll lose our focus on the places where we started out and have built incredible communities of readers. We aren’t naive to the challenge ahead. We are working hard to protect against the danger of spreading ourselves thin. And we hope to prove in the weeks to come that we can serve you even better by expanding to Detroit and new locations to come.

To start, let me introduce you to the incredible team that is launching our work in Detroit. Our editor, Julie Topping, joins us after a stellar career at the Detroit Free Press, where the long list of topics she supervised included education. She is also leading our coverage in Indianapolis.

Julie joins Erin Einhorn, who will now cover Detroit schools full time, adding more in-depth reporting and daily news analysis to the occasional features that have already had an impact.

Julie and Erin are launching our work today by introducing themselves and their own Detroit education stories. We hope this is just the first step in a conversation we’ll keep up for a long time to come. And we hope you’ll join that conversation. You can start by signing up for our new Detroit newsletter here.

Thank you as always for being part of our community and for everything you do for schools and families.

With gratitude,

Elizabeth

Chalkbeat

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.