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.



4:16 pm
Wed April 17, 2013

Supreme Court case about a little known law could be a big deal for Michigan's kids

A few members of the Burrows family, who hope a new state law will make experiences like theirs more rare.

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

Politics & Government
7:23 pm
Tue April 2, 2013

A few things to know about ladders, bootstraps and the American Dream

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. 

5:16 pm
Wed March 20, 2013

Are kids in the state's care safe? Court monitor says not safe enough

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.

Read more
9:19 pm
Wed March 6, 2013

Economy might be getting better, but poverty rate is not

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. 

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11:19 am
Wed February 27, 2013

Michigan locking up fewer kids, but is that good enough?

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.

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10:54 am
Fri February 15, 2013

Stockbridge Series: Economic hardship makes college readiness mean something different

Technical and college prep courses are not mutually exclusive in Stockbridge.
Credit 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.

9:40 am
Wed February 13, 2013

Stockbridge series: An educational experiment on the cheap

Heritage Exploratory Academy kids discussing their remote-operated vehicles
Credit 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. 

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.

Read more
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.

Read more
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.

Read more
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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