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Lori Higgins, far right, in a Chicago high school biology class in the mid-1980s, where students spent as much time socializing as they did learning.

Lori Higgins, far right, in a Chicago high school biology class in the mid-1980s, where students spent as much time socializing as they did learning.

Lori Higgins

My education left me feeling unprepared. Now I want to dig into education inequities and victories in Detroit.

Chalkbeat Detroit is growing. As we continue our conversation about schools in the city, we wanted to introduce you to our newest reporter: Lori Higgins, who joins us after 19 years covering education at the Detroit Free Press. She will work closely with reporter Koby Levin, who joined our team last spring; story editor Julie Topping; and bureau chief Erin Einhorn.

I was 17 years old, sitting in a computer lab at Eastern Illinois University, when I started writing an angry letter to Chicago school officials.

Just a few months before, I’d graduated from my Chicago high school ranked 13th out of more than 600 students. I’d earned all As — and a B in gym — on my final report card. But a cold reality set in soon after I began classes at EIU, one that still faces many students graduating from public schools where most of the students come from low-income families.

I was stuck in remedial math.

Not only that, I was lost in a basic science class — in contrast to my roommates from suburban Chicago and downstate Illinois who breezed by, bragging that they’d covered the material in high school.

This was 1987, the same year that then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett delivered a harsh criticism of the Chicago school system, declaring it the worst in the nation. And sadly, the same challenges exist today in Detroit and other urban communities.

Lori Higgins

Lori Higgins

My experiences are why I’m excited to begin a new journey at Chalkbeat Detroit. I’ll be part of a team of reporters and editors whose mission is to cover the effort to improve education for children in Detroit and across the country. Just 10.6% of students enrolled in the city’s main school district met SAT’s college-readiness standard this year. Almost half of those who graduated from the district during the 2015-16 school year and subsequently went to college were enrolled in a remedial course, according to the most recent data.

My experience in my college freshman classes left me feeling unprepared and angry — and that evening, I wanted Chicago school officials to know about it.

In that letter, I recall, I had some choice words about my high school biology class, where we spent more time socializing and taking photos of each other than we did actually learning. My teacher was a nice, eccentric man whose old station wagon was littered with bumper stickers. But he spent a lot of time ranting to students about his battles with school administrators.

Even then, I understood that inequity between my school and suburban schools — and even schools in some other parts of the city — was a contributing factor.

I never sent that letter. But I’ve spent more than 20 years writing about education in Kansas, Wisconsin, and Michigan — most recently as a longtime K-12 reporter for the Detroit Free Press. Often, as I’ve tried to understand the challenges facing public schools, I’ve drawn on my own experiences as a student, as the daughter and niece of Chicago teachers, and as someone whose career was influenced by a supportive teacher.

Growing up, I listened as my mother and her sisters talked about teaching, bureaucracy, the lack of support they had from administrators, and the actions of leaders that did little to help improve education.

I spent time helping my aunt, an elementary teacher, grade papers and was struck by the many students who were struggling. Often, I wondered why.

And I think back to the teachers who influenced me — in good and terrible ways. There was Mrs. Pappas, who told her students to stand at arm’s-length when they needed help and not to touch her. She had strong ideas about what was appropriate for black girls to wear — not pink rollers for curling hair. She thought those were only for white girls.

But then there was Mrs. Reese, my elementary principal who also taught me in eighth grade. Even though she had a demanding job, she took time to offer suggestions, edits, and encouragement in every chapter of a teenage romance novel I was writing (even though I knew nothing about the topic). Mrs. Huh, my seventh-grade teacher, was married to a man of Chinese descent. She opened us up to a world beyond our Chicago neighborhood — teaching us basic Chinese and taking us to the city’s Chinatown neighborhood.

There is more to Detroit than what’s visible on first glance. Detroit is facing intense challenges — from dismal test scores to high rates of chronic absenteeism. But there are deeper stories beyond the data that I’m thrilled to be able to spend more time writing about.

And that’s where you come in. I want to know about your own experiences as a student, parent or educator – whether it’s in the city’s main school district or in a charter school. What’s working for you? What needs fixing?

Together, we can tell the story of education in Detroit — and have a hand in ensuring that all students, no matter their zip code, have access to a quality education.

You can reach out to me at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org, at 248-219-6895, @LoriAHiggins, or find me on Facebook at higginsloria.