Jamarie Samuel, who attended seven Detroit schools by eighth grade, is featured in an investigative project by Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine on chronic school transience. Photo courtesy of Chalkbeat

How Chalkbeat connected with people it didn’t know to listen to the unheard narrative

Partnering with Outlier Media and Bridge Magazine, Chalkbeat turned a reporting project into a way to amplify their community’s lived experience.

When Erin Einhorn and her tiny team at Chalkbeat, a non-profit covering K-12 education, partnered with Bridge Magazine on an investigation into the city’s public schools, their reporting revealed that one in three Detroit elementary students switched schools every year.

The high transfer rate left teachers struggling with the disruption, and test scores fell. No one knew why so many students were switching schools, and then switching again. Einhorn, Chalkbeat Detroit’s bureau chief, decided to find out.

“When we started this project there was already solid research about the impact of school transience and how it affected kids and classrooms in general,” she said. But two things were missing: the classroom-level details that described the impact in a narrative way, and why so many Detroit families were making the choice to switch schools, often not once, but multiple times.

First, Einhorn took a traditional journalistic approach, selecting one classroom at a specific school. She and Bridge Magazine’s Chastity Pratt Dawsey spent many hours in the classroom, learning the stories of each student and their family to build a compelling narrative.

Photo courtesy of Chalkbeat

The 31 eighth-graders in the class they focused on had collectively attended a total of 128 schools — an average of more than four schools each. But after several months, Einhorn realized that this was just part of the story, on its own not be sufficient to answer the questions she’d set out to address.

“Part of it was the nature of the process,” she said. On the one hand, getting to know one classroom can be helpful. But parents who know their names and their kids’ names are going to be published might be reluctant to disclose information that might reflect negatively on them, or expose their children to ridicule. “If the reason I changed schools is that my kid was expelled, I wouldn’t necessarily reveal that,” Einhorn said.

“You do your best to make your networks as broad and diverse as possible, but you’re always sort of limited, and you can end up trapped in an echo chamber.”

Einhorn also worried that her pool of sources was not broad enough to capture important elements of the reporting. She was certain she was missing big parts of the story. “I was limited to my network, and the networks of the people in my networks.” she said. “You do your best to make your networks as broad and diverse as possible, but you’re always sort of limited, and you can end up trapped in an echo chamber.”

She set about to supplement that reporting with another approach, one that cast a wider net and enabled participants to retain some degree of anonymity, if they chose to. The first few attempts were stumbles. “We tried to send an email blast to Detroit Public School employees,” she said. “But it got caught in their spam filter and we couldn’t get it out.”

The “Ah Ha” Moment

Eventually Einhorn found her way to GroundSource, an SMS-based texting platform that enables news outlets to connect directly with people on their phones (full disclosure: I’m chief storyteller for GroundSource and am writing this piece on their behalf). She’d heard about it from Sarah Alvarez, a journalist-entrepreneur who had a desk at the same co-working space as Chalkbeat, and whose reporting approach at Outlier Media was built on GroundSource.

At Outlier, Alvarez buys giant bundles of Detroit cell phone numbers from marketing companies and then blind-texts them, offering recipients information on the status of the properties where they live. If they want to know whether landlord owes back taxes or their building is due for an inspection, all they have to do is text their address back to Alvarez, who responds with the information.

“I was like, ‘oh my God, I can get a message directly into the hands of parents and communicate with them one-on-one.”

During a demo, Alvarez had Einhorn enter a code on her phone, which elicited an instant response via text. In Einhorn’s words, “This was my ‘ah ha’ moment. I was like, ‘oh my God, I can get a message directly into the hands of parents and communicate with them one-on-one.”

Outlier’s model is built on filling information gaps in the community, which was different from what Einhorn was looking for. But Alvarez was intrigued by the Chalkbeat project, and agreed to develop a GroundSource-based parent survey.

“Part of the reason I wanted to do this is because a lot of reporting on education is based on data that doesn’t necessarily align with the issues parents want to know about,” Alvarez said. “I was excited to get some parent-generated data.”

Eleven of 31 students in this class, featured in the Chalkbeat-Bridge Magazine investigation, didn’t enroll in the school until eighth grade. Photo courtesy of Chalkbeat

Conducting the Survey

Using a list of Detroit phone numbers purchased from a marketing agency and divided among all city zip codes, Alvarez sent more than 32,000 texts. She received about 1,000 responses and from those culled a group of 100 parents of students attending Detroit public schools to participate in the survey.

Alvarez, said she “dusted off” the survey design skills she learned while earning a dual degree in law and public health, “so we could ask questions in a way that don’t lead people to certain conclusions.” She then had the questions vetted by a couple of social scientists to confirm that the approach was solid.

“We tried to strike a balance between getting enough information and not eroding our sources’ trust by asking for too much information over the intimate medium of SMS.”

The survey was designed to take no more than five minutes to complete. In total, she created 53 questions, though no respondent saw more than ten. “We tried to strike a balance between getting enough information and not eroding our sources’ trust by asking for too much information over the intimate medium of SMS,” Alzarez said. Those who completed all ten questions received a texted $10 Amazon gift card as a thank you.

The survey, conducted over a three-week period in May and June of 2018, focused on on the oldest child in each household, asking how many times the child had switched schools outside of normal graduations. “We then asked what type of school they switched from and to and why the switch was made,” Alvarez said. “We also asked parents if they thought switching schools had helped or hurt the ability of their child to succeed in school and what they looked for when choosing a new school.” The questions each person saw depended on their answers to the previous questions.

Survey Responses

Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy filing five years ago was the largest in U.S. history, and its ongoing economic challenges are well documented, including one of the highest rates of poverty in the country, poor housing stock and a high rate of housing instability. At the start of the project, Einhorn said, nearly everyone she talked to thought most parents would cite a direct cause-and-effect relationship between at least one of those factors and the frequency of switching schools.

“Children were changing schools because they could.”

But in the majority of instances, she said, that wasn’t true. “All of those reasons combined were not even collectively a majority,” Einhorn said. “Children were changing schools because they could,” she said. “Their schools were bad. It was a toxic mix of really low quality schools and really high opportunity for school choice.”

Makayla Vincent, who attended four schools by the time she was in eighth grade, is featured in the Chalkbeat-Bridge Magazine reporting project. Photo courtesy of Chalkbeat

As Einhorn and Dawsey wrote, “overwhelmingly, Detroit parents said they moved their children to new schools because they wanted better for their child — a safer school, a cleaner school, the kind of school where their children could thrive.”

With GroundSource, the story about an individual school was supplemented with a story with the force of 100 parent voices from a broad array of schools throughout the district. The breadth of voices and perspectives elevated the power and the credibility of the project, Einhorn said. “When you want to get out of that ‘how do I find the people who don’t know the people I know,’ ” she said, “this is a way to do that.”

Project Impact and Next Steps

The project “got a lot of attention from city and state leaders,” Einhorn said, including the leading candidates in the November gubernatorial race, both of whom pledged to take a closer look at the challenges facing Detroit families with school-age children, including putting more funding toward busing.

One piece in the project laid out five recommendations that could help relieve the school switching problem. And once the project was published, all of the participating families received a text with a link to the piece and an invitation to a forum focused on the findings.

Will Chalkbeat be using similar methods in its future reporting? “We were having a story meeting yesterday,” Einhorn said. “And my colleague said, ‘You know, this would be a great story for us to use GroundSource.’ ”

Sara Catania is the chief storyteller for GroundSource.

This content was first featured in GroundSource’s weekly newsletter on listening and community engagement. It features successful community engagement efforts, highlights missed opportunities for listening, and offers strategies that help you engage and listen to your community. You can subscribe to GroundSourced here.