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.

 

Ways To Connect

Bernt Rostad / creative commons

Detroit’s bankruptcy could impact many people’s daily lives, perhaps the city’s retirees most of all. At a banquet hall in Livonia this week the Detroit Retired City Employees Association held its annual luncheon. Over one thousand people attended. Many of them worry they may lose part or all of their pensions in the bankruptcy. 

Hear the worries, frustrations, and thoughts of retirees with close to 200 years of city service between them in their own voices below.  


Sarah Alvarez

In honor of July 4th, we asked immigrants across Michigan what America means to them. Abdo Najy shared his story.

Abdo Najy has just recently completed his PhD and hopes to run his own lab soon. He's friendly, smiles a lot, and is animated when he talks about his research on breast and prostate cancer. 

Najy is modest and measured, but he knows he has a role in the search for a cure to cancer. He views his work as a scientist as his way to repay this country for educational opportunities he would not have had in his native Yemen. 

Born in Yemen in the 1980’s in the midst of a polio outbreak, Najy contracted the disease when he was just six months old.

State of Opportunity has a new storytelling booth that can easily go places and record lots of personal stories in one fell swoop. 

For its first trip I took the booth to J.W. Sexton High School in downtown Lansing. I wanted to catch the graduating class a few weeks before their big day.

There are stories of seeking asylum in America, learning how to control anger, what it feels like the moment a college acceptance letter comes in the mail, and wanting a second chance.

Sarah Alvarez / Michigan Radio

The Buena Vista School District unceremoniously shut down ten days ago, sending staff and students home for the year after the district ran out of money.

At Tuesday night’s emergency school board meeting there was almost universal confusion about what happens next. 

The school board unanimously approved a deficit elimination plan they hope will allow state aid payments to start up again so students can get back in the classroom. 

If that doesn't work, the board grudgingly approved a plan for a summer "skills building camp," in lieu of traditional classroom time.

Nobody at the meeting seemed very happy about that option.

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case involving the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The law is designed to make sure Native American children in the child welfare system stay connected with their tribes.  

The court's decision will affect Michigan, as the state recently passed a stronger version of Indian Child Welfare Act.

I produced a story on these laws and the people they affect for State of Opportunity.

You can listen to the full version here.

And for those with limited time, here are three important points to know about this story:

  • Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act 35 years ago to put a stop to private and state workers taking Indian children away from their homes and tribes often with little reason other than a desire to assimilate them to white and Christian culture. Many families in Michigan are still dealing with the effects of this, including Judge Alli Greenleaf Maldonado who tells her personal story of her mother and her grandmother being removed from their homes. 
  • A Michigan law that is clearer and stronger than the federal law was passed in January with almost unanimous, bi-partisan support. The abusive practices of the past have stopped, but Indian children are still over-represented in the state's child welfare system.
  • Some child welfare advocates are looking to Michigan's law, the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act, as a model for the state because it takes a different approach to child welfare. It tries to keep children out of the state system in the first place. The law requires child welfare workers to work actively with parents to make changes that will benefit their children. The law also allows Indian children to have their cases in a smaller and more personal tribal system.  But the success of the law depends on everyone knowing the law and following it. Many people have concerns, like the Burrows family, who personally experienced a devastating loss when the law was applied incorrectly. 

Read more about the personal stories behind this law and why people have hope it can change Michigan's child welfare system at State of Opportunity

JSmith Photo / Flickr

State of Opportunity hosted a call-in show today and the conversation ranged from privilege to the politics around an increase in the minimum wage. But the conversation always circled back to one central question we asked listeners and our guests, "Do all kids have an equal shot at an American dream?"

Spoiler alert, none of the guests think all kids have an equal shot at what we call the American Dream. Even so, they offer data and insights they think could make a difference in helping all of Michigan's kids get ahead. Guests broke down why they think the state's future depends on more kids having equal opportunity. There was also lots of talk of bootstraps, climbing up ladders, and why the imagery of an American Dream is so powerful.

The State of Opportunity site has all the audio and a more thorough summary of the show. 



Almost 14,000 kids in Michigan have been taken out of their own homes by the state because of an abuse or neglect allegation.

Those kids then rely upon the state's Department of Human Services (DHS) to keep them safe and put them in an environment where they have a chance to thrive. Most of those kids end up in foster care.

Six years ago the state was sued by the advocacy group Children's Rights over treatment of kids in its care.

The state was back in court today to see where things stand. Everyone agrees things have gotten better since the lawsuit started six years ago, but the court appointed monitor said too many kids are still unsafe.

The slow pace of Michigan's economic recovery is leaving lots of people behind. New research looks into why the poverty rate in Michigan is not going down even though the economy  is beginning to pick up. 

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

Fewer teens and kids are incarcerated now in Michigan than fifteen years ago. A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation says youth incarceration in the state has dropped 44 percent since 1997.

A student working on wiring
Logan Chadde

In the last piece in the Stockbridge series, State of Opportunity explores how the schools in Stockbridge, Michigan have in some ways a sad task in educating their youth.

Because Stockbridge is a rural village with very little economic opportunity, preparing kids to succeed often means preparing them to leave town.

Teachers and administrators at the high school there don't think it's enough to try to prepare their students for college. College is expensive, and though most of the kids will pursue higher education of one kind or another, paying for it can be tough. 

So teacher Duane Watson and a few others are heavily invested in technical education. Watson has three rooms he teaches in, to call them classrooms might give the wrong impression.  In one of them, the only desks are broken ones people hope his students will fix. 

The classroom is actually a garage and I was impressed three full cars could fit inside it before Watson corrected me.

“Four actually, and one compact utility tractor, a snowplow going on a truck, a completely student fabricated tandem-axle trailer, and an alternative fuel vehicle-a battery powered golf cart." He said as he laughed about the golf cart experiment.

This shop is part of a serious effort by Watson and the schools in Stockbridge to keep technical classes from slipping out of the curriculum, like they have at a lot of other places. Plenty of the equipment in the auto shop was donated by schools who shut their programs down.

Finish the story and listen to it and the work of the Stockbridge youth journalists at State of Opportunity.

Heritage Exploratory Academy kids discussing their remote-operated vehicles
Courtesy of Stockbridge Exploratory Academy

State of Opportunity's latest story takes you inside the Exploratory Academy at Stockbridge's Heritage Elementary. It's a hands on learning experiment where kids use their hands to build things like underwater robots or a "wax-works museum" full of historical figures. 

The Academy has been around since September, and so far results are good. Test scores are on track and Principal Jim Kelly says he's never had so many dads involved in school. 

And the best part, it hasn't cost the district any extra money. More on how this innovation got off the ground and if it's likely to be successful at State of Opportunity. 

sign in school
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. 

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.

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.

Rina Miller / Michigan Radio

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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