What’s Happening:

Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news publisher that covers K-12 education, was investigating the public school system in Detroit, Michigan to uncover the reasons why one in three elementary students switched schools every year. No one knew why this was happening, but the traditional journalistic approach wasn’t working. Privacy of the students and having a broad enough pool of sources were both concerns as Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Detroit’s bureau chief, and her team began reporting.

Einhorn started looking at other tools with which to supplement the investigation for a fuller narrative that was truly representative of the community and found GroundSource, an SMS-based texting platform that enables news outlets to connect directly with people on their phones. The team developed a parent survey that was text messaged directly to more than 32,000 people in the Detroit public school system. The responses helped Chartbeat to publish the story, supplemented with the force of 100 parent voices from a broad array of schools across the district.


Why it Matters:

The breadth of voices and perspectives elevated the power and credibility of the project. “When you want to get out of that ‘how do I find the people who don’t know the people I know, this is a way to do that,” Einhorn said. By gleaning such specific and personal feedback from so many parent sources, Chartbeat was able to lay out five recommendations in the story for addressing the problem of so many students changing schools so frequently.

Once the report 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. The project also got a lot of attention from city and state leaders, who pledged to take a closer look at the challenges facing Detroit families with school-age children.


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Digging Deeper:

  • Using a list of Detroit phone numbers purchased from a marketing agency and divided among all city zip codes, more than 32,000 texts were sent. Chartbeat 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.
  • The survey was designed to take no more than five minutes to complete. There were 53 total questions, but no individual respondent saw more than 10. The questions each person saw depended on their answers to the previous questions.
  • The survey, conducted over a three-week period in May and June of 2018, focused on the oldest child in each household, asking how many times the child had switched schools outside of normal graduations.
  • Those who completed all ten questions received a texted $10 Amazon gift card as a thank you.


The Bottom Line:

Being able to directly source such answers from parents of the students themselves, Chartbeat was able to uncover the true reasons for the high rate of school switching — which were different than what had been expected at the outset. The team was also able to generate interest and response from those in the community who could actually address the problem. In the end, the approach was able to report an important story with a previously-unheard community voice.

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