Fighting to fix

Detroit school board and superintendent: We can improve the local schools the state wants to close

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board voted unanimously Wednesday to fight school closures in court.

Members of the new Detroit school board vowed Wednesday night to prevent state officials from shutting down low-performing schools — and to find another way to fix those schools.

“The school board is committed to improving our schools, not shutting them down,” board president Iris Taylor said in a prepared statement she read after the board voted unanimously to hire a law firm to battle state-mandated closures.

The state school reform office last month released a list of 38 schools across the state that will be shut down for low-performance unless the office decides that closing the schools would cause a hardship to students. The 38 schools include 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority that will return to the main district next summer.

The board hired the Miller Canfield law firm, which produced a memo last summer that is expected to be the basis of the district’s legal fight with the state. The memo argues that because the Detroit Public Schools Community District is officially a new legal entity that replaced the Detroit Public Schools, it should be given a fresh start and not face consequences for decisions made under the old district.

Now, district officials have directed managers to create improvement plans for each of the schools in the next 10 days. “Our leadership teams are working around the clock” to create the plans, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather said in a statement.

Here are the full statements from the school board and Meriweather.

DPSCD Board of Education Statement

For the first time in nearly a decade, the City of Detroit has a true school board, made up of educators, executives, and community leaders, empowered to make decisions that will improve our schools and lead to better educational outcomes for Detroit’s children.

Yet, just days into our term, the State School Reform Office (SRO) has listed 16 low performing DPSCD schools and eight EAA schools on a potential closure list, regardless of whether those children and families have a quality school in their neighborhood.  The SRO advised Detroit parents that if their child’s school is closed, they should consider sending their child to communities as far as Holly and East China to find a quality school.

Since 2009—when the state emergency managers took over Detroit schools—over 150 schools in Detroit have been shuttered.  These closures have imposed serious hardship on Detroit schoolchildren.  Study after study has indicated that when students are forced to switch schools unexpectedly, their academic performance suffers, their absenteeism rates increase, and the risk that they will drop out of high school skyrockets.  Yet the SRO is considering closing still more schools—inflicting new educational injuries on a population of students that has already suffered.

That is simply not right.  The DSCD school board is committed to improving our schools not shutting them down.

To that end, the board has directed DPSCD management to rapidly complete improvement plans for each of these schools.

We have spoken with Governor Snyder’s staff and he has committed that thoughtful analysis will be done before any schools are closed.

Meanwhile, we are authorizing DPSCD to take legal action when timely and appropriate to present why we believe these school closures cannot legally move forward.  We are hopeful that we can work with the state to avoid any action, however, we reserve the right to do so.

We look forward to presenting a plan for improvement to the SRO and the families of Detroit.

Statement from Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather

On behalf of myself, our families, teachers and our administrators I want to thank the Board of Education for their leadership. We stand with their decision to work to keep our schools open. We have no doubt that closing schools without providing high-quality options would be devastating to our families. It would mean undue hardships in transportation, safety and access to critically needed wrap around services.

We also understand that it is critically important that each of these 16 schools shows dramatic improvement. As I speak, our leadership teams are working around the clock to create data-driven improvement plans for each school. These plans will be presented within the 10 days. We are confident that each one of these neighborhood schools can be a high-quality option for our students.

Finally, I want to thank the community – Mayor Duggan, our legislators, pastors, residents and friends for your outpouring of support. We sense that you are behind us and that you are locking arms with us to help us create better outcomes for our students. Thank you.

Superintendent search

Ten things to know about Detroit superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., speaks in a district video.

The search for Detroit’s next schools superintendent enters the next stage on Wednesday with the first of two public interviews with the finalists for the job.

The candidate on the hot seat Wednesday is Nikolai Vitti, a Dearborn Heights native who is now superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. The district is more than three times the size of the Detroit district, which now enrolls around 40,000 students.

Vitti will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Wednesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes a visit to Thirkell Elementary Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at the Breithaupt Career & Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

A second finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, will go through a similar process on Monday. Despite community pressure, the district’s current interim superintendent is not a finalist and will not be interviewed.

Before the action begins, here are ten things to know about Vitti:

  1. He grew up in Dearborn Heights, the son of Italian immigrants.
  2. He played football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, later getting graduate degrees in education at Harvard.
  3. His history as someone who has struggled with dyslexia a challenge also faced by his two sons — has led him to highlight the needs of students with learning disabilities. Those efforts earned him an award from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  4. Vitti presides over a district labeled the most dangerous in Florida but faces far fewer challenges than Detroit does.
  5. He appears to have found a middle ground in a polarized education reform landscape. On the one hand, he has invoked the language of teachers as “widgets” that came out of a seminal 2009 report that advocated for weighing student performance in teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation decisions, and he replaced 30 percent of principals early in his tenure in Duval County, saying that they were underperforming. But he has advocated for the arts and evaluating performance beyond test scores.
  6. He says he has learned a lesson that some hard-charging reformers took a while to absorb: that having a strong curriculum is as important as getting strong educators into the classroom. “This has been an evolution for me. I have traditionally put more of my eggs in the leadership-development category and in the direct support of teachers through coaching. That’s still a relevant investment,” he said in an October 2016 conversation with an education leader. “But as I’ve gone through this process and evolved as a leader and a thinker, I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket than I ever would have before.” In Duval County, Vitti rolled out EngageNY, the free curriculum that New York State developed and now makes available to other states. EngageNY is also in use in some Detroit-area schools, including in those run by the state’s Education Achievement Authority, which will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer.
  7. Vitti has sparred with the local NAACP over test score disparities between white children and children of color. And a Duval school board member asked Vitti to resign last fall in part over the achievement gap, issuing an open letter explaining why. The local newspaper urged the board to keep him, saying the idea of firing him would be a “tragic mistake.”
  8. But the racial achievement gap is lower in Duval County than in many other urban districts. And low-income and minority students as well as students with disabilities in Jacksonville perform better on a national exam compared to their peers across the country. Vitti credits to Response to Intervention, an approach to helping struggling students fill in their skills gaps, with the strong results.
  9. Vitti believes that school systems can and should give children more than what’s necessary to hit learning goals. Duval County has a voluntary summer school to keep kids busy.
  10. His wife, Rachel, an educator and advocate, invoked the fact that she’s a black woman married to Vitti, who is white, on a poster to campaign “as a straight ally” for a local human rights ordinance. “The sobering fact is that less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, I would have been arrested and jailed for displaying my human right to love a man, who shares my heart, brings me to a poignant pause,” she was quoted as saying on the poster. “Less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, my four bi-racial children would have been deemed to be illegitimate and would not have been given the protections and privileges afforded to the children of lawfully wedded parents.”

change at the top

Warning of ‘inconsistency at the top,’ Detroit school administrators, teachers urge board to reconsider Meriweather

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather is not among finalists in the running to be Detroit's permanent district superintendent.

Even as the Detroit Public Schools Community District moves forward with planning day-long interviews for the three finalists in the running to be Detroit’s next superintendent, supporters of the woman currently in the top job have continued to push her case.

After the Detroit school board announced over the weekend that Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather was not among finalists for the permanent position, ten top district administrators signed a letter urging the board to keep their current boss in the running.

“Our district has endured an enormous amount of change in leadership over the past 10 years,” the administrators wrote, adding that the district has “succumbed to the dictates of 5 emergency managers and have finally returned to local control.”

The letter calls on the board to give Meriweather a formal interview noting that district leadership has “seen up close and personal the detriment of inconsistency at the top.”

The administrators are part of an effort that was joined Wednesday by the city teachers union, which released a statement urging the board to consider Meriweather. Hundreds of her supporters have also signed a petition.

The board has three finalists scheduled for 12-hour interviews that will include school visits, parent meetings and public questioning by the board.

Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for the Milwaukee Public Schools is scheduled for an interview on March 29th. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., is scheduled for April 3. And Derrick Coleman, who is superintendent of the River Rouge district, is scheduled for April 5.

Board President Iris Taylor said the board has no plans to add a fourth candidate to the mix.

“We have a process that we’ve established and that we’ve agreed upon and we’re going to continue to follow that process,” she said.

Meriweather’s interim contract continues until June 30. She says she intends to stay focused on the job until then but wouldn’t comment this week on whether she’ll plan to stay with the district under a new superintendent.

Here’s the letter from district leaders that was signed by top district administrators including the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Marios Demetriou, its Executive Director of Enrollment Steve Wasko and several district network leaders: