Sarah Alvarez

Public Insight Journalist

Sarah is the Senior Producer/Public Insight Analyst at Michigan Radio. Her job is to encourage people to share what they know and become sources for Michigan Radio and to help tell those stories.

Before coming back to Michigan and jumping into journalism Sarah was a civil rights lawyer in New York and a consultant to social justice organizations in California. She graduated from the University of Michigan, Columbia Law School and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

She lives in Ann Arbor with her wonderful husband and three wonderful, busy kids.



11:13 am
Tue February 12, 2013

Stockbridge series: High expectations for at-risk kids

Stockbridge's Smith Elementary uses a system of behavior and learning interventions keep expectations high and kids on track.
Credit Sarah Alvarez

Robin Lowe-Fletcher's son, Brenden, is considered an “at-risk” kid. But he’s also quick, engaging and funny. 

He was born with a cognitive impairment, which does make it harder for him to learn. His mom explains that Brenden was born with Down syndrome.

Brenden's special education status gets him the at-risk label. For those kids, economics, statistics, or in Brenden’s case, biology, work against them.

These kids are more likely to disengage from school and then have a really hard time living up to their potential. In Stockbridge what gets a lot of kids an at-risk label is economics. Over 40 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. But that doesn’t mean their parents don’t want their kids to do well. 

The principal at Brenden's school, Michelle Ruh, has put a system in place she thinks will help all kids do well, even those with the "at-risk" label. It comes along with high expecations. At State of Opportunity we find out if this system is working for Brenden and the other kids at Stockbridge's elementary. 

10:39 am
Mon February 11, 2013

State of Opportunity: A close look at a rural school district

A view of downtown Stockbridge. The village is one square mile, surrounded by 145 square miles of school district.
Credit Logan Chadde / Michigan Radio

Stockbridge is a village similar to many places around the state. The economy is tough, industry has gone, and the school system is one of few ways kids from the town can get a leg up.

All this week we're going inside this small town school district. Like a lot places, they're trying to make sure their kids have educational opportunity, even in the face of shrinking state aid and a tough economy.

Today's story is a look at how the district made a push over a decade ago to try to convince parents early childhood education was worth the expense. The district now educates over half of their incoming kindergarten class in their preschool program.

In addition to these daily stories, youth journalists from Stockbridge High School report on what educational opportunity and coming of age in rural Michigan looks like from their perspective. 

Find the whole series at State of Opportunity.

State of Opportunity
6:01 am
Wed January 30, 2013

The link between marriage and success

One of the many award walls in the Little's home, celebrating the achievements of their daughters.
Credit Sarah Alvarez

Kids in poverty are much more likely to come from single parent homes. Because of this correlation politicians across the political spectrum (most recently Rick Santorum in his presidential bid) have pushed policies to encourage marriage. The hope is that marriage can alleviate childhood poverty.

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The Environment Report
9:00 am
Tue November 27, 2012

Enbridge Energy runs public relations campaign around new pipeline; some neighbors unimpressed

Sections of Enbridge's new pipeline ready to be installed.
Rina Miller Michigan Radio

You can listen to today's Environment Report segment above.

Enbridge Energy has a bit of a bad reputation in Michigan.  In 2010, one of the company’s pipelines burst near Marshall. More than a million gallons of oil have been cleaned up so far from the Kalamazoo River. Last winter there was a small leak near Sterling in the northeast part of the state.

But Enbridge is planning for growth. They’re replacing the pipeline that burst - Line 6B - and they’re building some new sections as well. The company hopes to double the amount of oil they can move from Canada to refineries in Michigan and Ohio (we've previously reported that an Enbridge spokesman said the main product in the new pipeline will be from Alberta's tar sands region. The EPA says the nature of tar sands oil made the Kalamazoo River spill much more difficult to clean up).

Enbridge has been running a public relations campaign to try to improve its image. But some landowners along the pipeline route are not impressed.

Read more
State of Opportunity
8:35 am
Wed November 21, 2012

Have we been measuring poverty wrong this whole time?

Amber Pedersen in her home. She worked her way above the official poverty line with the help of some government programs.

With the fiscal cliff fight right around the corner, a lot of anti-poverty programs might end up on the chopping block.

The State of Opportunity team has been looking at some of those programs to examine if they are helping move people out of poverty. If you look at the official poverty rate, programs like Medicaid and food stamps seem to be hardly making a dent.

The U.S. poverty rate has hardly budged in half a century. The Census says the same share of our country is living in poverty right now as in the 1960’s.

So there’s lots of traction for accusations that programs like food stamps and Medicaid cost too much and don’t work. That criticism is not new, President Regan famously said in his 1988 State of the Union address, “My friends, some years ago the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”

But there are some who think the problem isn't in the government programs, it's in how we measure the poverty rate.

James Sullivan and his co-author Bruce Meyer say since we started measuring poverty we’ve been doing it wrong. Sullivan is an economist at the University of Notre Dame. He thinks a simple change in how poverty is measured would have huge implications. Sullivan thinks people should just be asked how they spent their money instead of how much money they earned. It's called a consumption measure. As Sullivan explains,

"The official poverty between 1970 and today has risen by two and a half percentage points. But if you look at consumption based poverty over those same four decades you see that poverty has fallen by 12 percentage points, which is a very different story.”

Find out more about that "different story" and listen to today's feature at State of Opportunity.

Politics & Government
9:30 am
Tue November 6, 2012

Weigh in on your election experience

Credit TedsBlog / flickr

Using our Public Insight Network you can add to our news coverage this election day. Just follow the links to weigh in.

We're curious why you voted the way you did on the candidates, and particularly on the statewide ballot initiatives.

We'll fold your insights into our coverage all day and night. You can also tell us about your experience at the polls. Was it smooth sailing, or did you experience something out of the ordinary?

State of Opportunity
11:56 am
Wed October 3, 2012

Flint, a city of possiblity and community for young people?

courtesy of Dan Moilanen

Flint is a much maligned city. While there is plenty of good happening in the city it does have challenges that go far beyond an image problem.

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4:32 pm
Tue September 25, 2012

Around 30,000 kids missing from state public preschools

Lead in text: 
A new report by Bridge Magazine estimates 30,000 Michigan preschoolers are eligible for public preschool, and aren't there. Bridge Magazine got to their numbers by finding out how many kids are eligible and how many are currently enrolled. Public preschool is available for kids from low and moderate income homes, over half of children in the state.
State of Opportunity
1:16 pm
Wed September 19, 2012

How to avoid burnout and help more people

Krista Nordberg, the Director of Advocacy for the Washtenaw County Health Plan.

Health insurance is such a political issue, talked about all the time and so dispassionately, that it can be easy to forget just how important it is to some families. But, last year the Census estimated paying for health care pushed at least 10 million Americans into poverty.

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State of Opportunity
11:52 am
Tue September 11, 2012

Census to release poverty numbers showing America likely back at 1965 levels

About one in six Michigan children live in poverty. Economic mobility studies show these children will have a difficult time climbing out of poverty within their lifetime.
Michael Newman flickr

State of Opportunity is covering tomorrow's announcement of poverty estimates by the Census Bureau. The numbers will show how many Americans lived in poverty during 2011.

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2:45 pm
Wed September 5, 2012

Come meet Michigan Radio at first Open Newsroom event

Most days we ask you to tune in and listen to our news coverage and the stories we bring you of life across the state. But the morning of Wednesday, September 12 from 7:30 to 9:30 we’re relying on you to do some reporting for us-it’s our turn to listen to you. Michigan Radio is hosting it's first "Open Newsroom" event.

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State of Opportunity
10:36 am
Thu August 23, 2012

What it takes to raise successful kids

Fuscia Foot flickr

Having lots of money does not make somebody a better parent, but a child with wealthy parents is more likely to go to college, and more likely to have economic opportunity once they become an adult.

If you are a low-income parent and you want your kids to be successful, the numbers are not on your side.

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10:42 pm
Mon August 20, 2012

Why is lack of exercise the number one health concern for kids?

insipidlife flickr

Kids don't get enough exercise, and it's really bad for their heath. That's what many adults told a national survey. Lack of exercise was number one on the list of top-ten child health concerns according to the survey conducted by C. S. Mott Children's Hospital. Obesity and smoking rounded out the top three health concerns for kids.

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10:43 am
Thu July 12, 2012

How do stereotypes shape your view of Detroit?

Young journalists in Detroit work to break stereotypes about what life in some of the city's under-reported neighborhoods is like.

Most of what people think they know about what poor people look like and what their problems are is clouded by stereotypes.

I met a group of young journalists in Midtown Detroit looking to paint a more accurate version of what life in a low-income community is really like. They write for a project called “Our life in the D.” Most of them are in high school and from neighborhoods in Detroit that don’t attract much money or attention.

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State of Opportunity

State of Opportunity is a multi-year reporting and community engagement project focused on how poverty affects children in Michigan. It will shed light on the challenges of growing up or raising kids while struggling to pay the bills and highlight the successes and the resilience of these families and the people who serve them.

10:25 pm
Mon July 2, 2012

Is foster care in Michigan getting better?

Some of the games for young people at the Ruth Ellis House, a place for homeless youth.

Michigan’s foster care system is huge, the sixth biggest in the country. So many kids in the system were being abused, neglected or just forgotten about under the state’s care that a group called Children’s Rights sued the state to force it to change in 2006. Two years ago, the state entered into a court settlement and is now being monitored as it makes changes to its child welfare system.

Toni Williams grew up in foster care. She spent almost her whole life in the system, from the time she was a baby until a year ago when the state says she became too old for the system. Williams was 20. Under recent legislation some young people in Michigan can now receive transitional services until 21.

Williams just graduated from high school and is going to community college in the fall where she’s going to study to be a childcare provider and maybe work with the foster system.

“The reason why is because I know what it feels like, you know, to not have your family," says Williams. "You know what I’m saying? So it’s actually a good feeling to know that there’s someone out here who is willing to take a place for being a mother, or a father.”

Williams knows somebody needs to step up and be there for kids who need love, and guidance. The state for too long, was not stepping up.

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12:00 pm
Thu June 14, 2012

How much does preschool matter?

A 14 year study of 500 Michigan children showed the effects of preschool can last all the way through 12th grade.
U.S Embassy Manila, Phillipines flickr

Preschool matters a lot. Particularly for low income kids. In Michigan, low income students with one year of preschool were found to do better in school than other low income kids, and positive effects of that early education were seen all the way through 12th grade.

Those results are from a 14-year study of 500 Michigan children. The study is part of a recent evaluation of the state Great Start Readiness Program.

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11:24 am
Thu May 10, 2012

Moving up the economic ladder in Michigan

Despite a tough state economy, people in Michigan are better able to move up the economic ladder than people in almost every other state. That's according to a report released by the Pew Research Center today.

The study found overall economic status doesn't change much over people's lives.

Erin Currier is from the Pew Center. She says the study did not look at why certain states did better than others. But she says there are some general lessons.

“Certain drivers of mobility are extremely powerful and those drivers include things like educational attainment, savings and asset building, and neighborhood poverty during childhood among others,” Currier.

The study found states with the most economic mobility are New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

9:47 am
Wed March 28, 2012

To prepare workers, retraining programs try to predict the future

Wendy Whitmore, CEO of EMR Approved, and Penny Smith, who works in business development at EMR Approved. In 2009, Whitmore retrained her staff of 12 to turn her IT company into a company that deals with electronic medical records.
Preeti Upadhyaya

Unemployment numbers in the Midwest are bad. Not as bad as when the recession was at its worst, but there are still a lot of people looking for jobs. Even so, we keep hearing that some employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says in his state alone, there are more than 77,000 job openings that can’t be filled.

There is really only one way to bridge that gap. People need training. And the way people are getting that training is changing.

Wendy Whitmore is the CEO of EMR Approved, a company in Chicago that works with doctors and hospitals that are making the switch to electronic medical records.

Four years ago, EMR Approved didn’t exist. Back then, Wendy Whitmore was running SSG Consulting, an IT consulting firm that wasn’t doing so well.

So she decided to try something new, and she took 12 of her employees with her.

Whitmore still runs SSG Consulting, and some of her employees straddle both businesses, but what they’re doing now is totally new.

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Cancer & Environment
8:55 am
Thu March 8, 2012

Suing over cancer (Part 4)

Kathy Henry's property was contaminated by Dow Chemical with a chemical called dioxin. The EPA says it's likely to cause cancer.
Photo by Kathy Henry

As part of our week-long series on cancer and the environment... we’re talking about going to court. Some people turn to the courts because they think pollution has made them sick, and they think they know who’s to blame. But, the courts aren’t always the best place to turn with these kinds of cases.

Kathy Henry lived along a river in the Midland area that Dow Chemical contaminated with a chemical called dioxin. The EPA says dioxin is likely to cause cancer. Henry’s property had high levels of the chemical. So she and a group of other people sued Dow. She was more than a little nervous that first day in court.

“I was a little overwhelmed, just really interested in watching the proceedings.”

But what does she feel like now?

”We’re just frustrated to the point where I have no respect for the process anymore.”

Henry’s frustrated because her case started nine years ago. Their case isn’t over yet, but it’s not looking good for them.

“We just wanted the courts to force Dow to basically buy our house so we could leave. And we couldn’t afford to just pack up and leave on our own.”

Henry’s group has not been successful in getting Dow to pay for any moves, or for medical monitoring to look out for future health problems.

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