Hitting the road?

Detroit parents steered to ‘better’ schools — that don’t actually take Detroit kids

PHOTO: Ken Lund
State officials are encouraging Detroit families to hit the road in search of 'better' schools — but some districts offered as alternatives won't accept Detroit children.

Thousands of Detroit parents last month opened their mailboxes to find an alarming letter.

“You are receiving this letter because the school your child attends is at risk of being closed by June 30, 2017 due to academic failure for many years,” the letter states.

The letter, signed by State School Reform Officer Natasha Baker, went on to explain that children attending closed schools may be offered “the opportunity to attend a higher-performing school” and encouraged parents to use an attached list of schools “to enroll your child in a better option for the 2017-2018 school year.”

But when Detroit parents turned to the attached list, many were surprised. There were nearly 60 school districts listed, including some like Holly, Brighton and East China, Mich., that are an hour’s drive from Detroit.

“When this letter first came out, parents started blowing up my phone saying ‘What is this?’” said Wytrice Harris, a parent organizer with 482Forward. “‘Are they telling us to move out of the city because these schools are so far away? How am I ever supposed to get my kids to these schools?’”

To make matters worse, Chalkbeat has discovered that some of the districts listed don’t even accept Detroit kids. We spent an hour on Friday calling districts on the list to see how they would respond to questions from someone claiming to be the mother of a Detroit student — and some seemed very confused.

“I’m really sorry they put us on that list,” said the woman who responded from Brighton Area Schools.

Brighton is a Schools of Choice district, meaning it accepts students who live outside district borders. But state law only allows districts to accept kids who live in the same county or in a neighboring county. And since Brighton is in Livingston County, which does not share a border with Wayne County, Brighton does not accept Detroit kids.

“I would imagine you could attend Oakland County schools,” said the helpful woman from Brighton.

It was the same story with East China schools, which are in St. Clair County.

“We take students from Sanilac, Lapeer and Macomb [Counties],” an enrollment official in East China responded.

When told that East China was on the list provided to Detroit families, she said, “That was a typo. That was supposed to be East Detroit.”

East Detroit was also on the list provided to Detroit families, and its schools are much closer to Detroit than East China’s. But that district has also had academic struggles. Some of its schools are currently being run by a state-appointed CEO, and one East Detroit school is also on the list of schools officials have threatened to close.

Baker last month put 38 Michigan schools on notice that they could be closed unless her office determines that closing the school would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students.

There are 25 Detroit schools on the list, including 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and eight schools in the state-run Education Achievement Authority that are expected to revert back to the city’s main district this summer.

The Detroit school board voted last week to oppose the closings in court if necessary, and cited the letter parents received among its concerns.

“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,” board President Iris Taylor said, reading a prepared statement from the board Wednesday night.

Asked for comment about the parent letter on Friday, the SRO emailed this statement to Chalkbeat: “We looked at districts with schools that have Top-To-Bottom rankings of 25 or higher contiguous to failing schools that are also schools of choice. The goal was to find quality schools accessible to children and families.

“We appreciate the concerns that have been raised and will consider those points during the hardship review. Our goal is to offer quality opportunities for students so that they can succeed as adults.”

When Chalkbeat set out to contact districts on the list, we decided to see how many we could reach in one hour.

We started at the top of the alphabetical list, placing a call to Airport Community Schools, which are near the Ohio border in Monroe County.

“We can take kids from Wayne County,” said the man who answered the phone.

But Airport schools are in Carleton, Michigan, nearly an hour away now that I-75 is closed for construction — and very few districts offer student transportation to non-resident kids.

“It would be your responsibility to get ‘em here,” he said.

Some districts we reached were welcoming, including Clintondale Community Schools in Macomb County.

“We have a lot of Detroit kids here,” said the woman who took the call in Clintondale. “Twenty to 25 percent of our population is from Detroit.”

She recommended Parker Elementary school, where she knows some Detroit families carpool to class. (She did not mention that the school was one of the lowest ranked schools in the state last year.)

The Crestwood School District is very close to Detroit in Dearborn Heights, but it won’t take just any kid.

“We’re a closed district except that we have the Crestwood Accelerated program,” the woman on the phone at Crestwood told us. “Your child is welcome to test for the accelerated program but we don’t have any test dates scheduled yet. The next one would probably be by the end of the school year.”

Most districts that answered our calls were largely helpful but not necessarily encouraging.

“Our Schools of Choice window should be open at the beginning of March,” said the woman who took the call at the Anchor Bay School District, which is based in Casco Township, Michigan, a 50-minute drive from Detroit.

“But, you know, transportation is not included,” she said. “If traffic was bad, you could be spending an hour just getting them here.”

Here’s the list of “better” districts that Detroit parents received:

The list of ‘better’ school districts provided to Detroit parents include districts very far from the city that won’t accept Detroit kids.


The new boss

Detroit superintendent pick Nikolai Vitti: I’ve been ‘drafted by my home team’

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti visits classrooms in Duval County, Florida on the first day of school in 2016.

Florida Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said learning this week that has been selected to run Detroit schools was like learning he’d been “drafted by my home team.”

Vitti, who grew up in Dearborn Heights but has lived in North Carolina, New York and Florida throughout his career, is now the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

Vitti on Wednesday issued a statement celebrating his selection:

When I learned of the board’s decision last night it felt as if it were announced that I was drafted by my home team. It was a proud moment for my entire family and I. To be selected as the first superintendent by the newly elected board and new district is humbling and an honor. I look forward to working through the contract phase of the process as soon as possible in order to serve the children and families of Detroit.

The new Detroit school board, which took office in January, voted unanimously Tuesday night to start contract talks with Vitti in hopes that he will take over the district by July 1. He beat out River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman for the job.

The board said Tuesday night that it would ask Vitti to work on a transition team with Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather as he prepares to take over the district. Meriweather was the preferred candidate of many Detroiters but was eliminated from consideration for the permanent position last month after school board members decided they wanted someone with at least three years of experience running a school district.

Daunting challenges

Rebuilding trust and filling classrooms: What Detroiters say new schools chief Nikolai Vitti should tackle first

Duval County Public Schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who was selected this week to lead Detroit's main school district, reads this week to students at Woodlawn Acres in Florida with his wife, Rachel Vitti. (photo via Twitter).

Nikolai Vitti, the Florida school leader selected this week to run Detroit schools faces many steep challenges. Among the most daunting: He’ll be working with people who wanted someone else to get the job.

“Educators wanted Alycia Meriweather,” said Andrea Jackson, a college advisor at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, an eastside high school.

Meriweather has led the district as interim superintendent for over a year and had been the top choice of many district administrators, community leaders, and city teachers. She was eliminated from consideration last month when the board decided it wanted someone with at least three years of superintendent experience.

That decision sparked angry protests, but the board moved ahead with interviewing two finalists and Tuesday night voted to negotiate a contract with Vitti for the top job.

“Dr. Vitti should work side by side with Meriweather as Assistant Superintendent,” the district’s teachers union said in a statement about the appointment that focused first on its disappointment that she had not been considered.

“With that said,” the union’s statement continued, “we look forward to working with Dr. Vitti. The district is faced with several important issues: contract negotiations with labor unions, the return of Education Achievement Authority schools, budget stability,  retaining staff, and filling teaching vacancies.”

Indeed, when Vitti starts by July 1, he’ll face a long to-do list — and pressure from educators, students and community leaders to make his priorities match their own. Here’s what some say he should focus on:


Rebuilding trust

Meriweather has said she wants to stay in Detroit to keep working for its students, and the new superintendent is “going to have to come and work with her. Period,” Jackson said. “You cannot come into a city like this and be an effective leader without the voice of the community and support of the community and it would be a significant blow if he did not work side-by-side with Alycia Meriweather.”

And if Meriweather is not personally involved in the new administration, many Detroiters are urging the new superintendent to make her ideas and plans a part of his agenda.

“I have heard repeatedly from teachers and principals, current and retired, over and over again, how [this year under Meriweather] is the first time in years that people have a sense of optimism and hope in a DPS superintendent,” said Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit city councilwoman who leads a voter education organization and community action group called CitizenDetroit.

The new superintendent, she said, “should start by reaching out to teachers and acknowledging and appreciating the level of disappointment that’s coming from them and from many parents and attempt to offer an agenda that will …begin to build the level of trust that Superintendent Meriweather was able to build,”

Meriweather did not respond to a request for comment. But people who’ve followed her work say the new superintendent should be careful about coming in with his own agenda and tearing up work she’s done.

“He is going to have to rally the troops,” said Tanisha Manningham, the principal of Denby High School on Detroit’s east side, which is returning to the main Detroit district this summer. “He’s going to have to earn their trust and [that means] maybe looking at what Alycia started and maybe not totally disrupting that.”


Addressing the teacher shortage

The district has more than 200 vacant teaching positions — forcing schools across the city to cram far too many students in far too few classrooms.

“There are always over 45 kids in my classes and there are only 30 desks,” said Alondra Alvarez, 17, a junior at Western International High School in southwest Detroit where she said students pull up two chairs to every desk and struggle to pay attention. “It’s so loud,” she said, “and my teacher tries to have a lot of control but it’s hard.”

One way to recruit more teachers is to pay them more, said Ivy Bailey, head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which is currently negotiating a new contract with Meriweather that the new superintendent will have to execute. The average Detroit teacher made $57,793 last year, putting district salaries behind many suburban districts and charter schools.

But attracting and retaining teachers goes beyond pay, Bailey said, especially after years in which state-appointed emergency managers imposed many changes in the district.

“People are very distrusting and rightfully so,” she said. “The challenge is going to be creating trust and respect.”

She added, “We need to raise student achievement but you can’t come in here with an iron fist to get that done. … They are always trying to do something to teachers without teacher input.”

Manningham, the principal at Denby, added that the new superintendent should find ways to pay bonuses to help bring teachers’ salaries up to the level of their suburban colleagues and should look for ways to help teachers improve their skills and advance in their careers.

Jackson said even small gestures would help.

“They have to create business partnerships to send teachers out to dinner, out to lunch,” she said. “We need to be rewarded after 18 years with no raise … We need a DPS teacher appreciation program. Teachers and staff are DPS’ biggest resources and the district can’t sustain itself with a constant turnover of teachers and staff.”


Improving student attendance

Detroit schools have one of the highest rates of chronically absent students in the country. Meriweather told the school board earlier this year that a stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — more than 23,000 kids — missed two or more days of schools per month, making it difficult for educators to have much impact.

Manningham said absent students are the biggest challenge she faces at Denby and called on the new superintendent to look into expanding school bus transportation.

“We don’t provide yellow buses in high school and a lot of time [city buses] are running late or buses don’t show up,” she said.


Devising creative solutions

Manningham called on the new superintendent to use “courageous creativity” to manage schools. She said principals should be given flexibility to adapt their budgets and curricula to allow for innovations that would help their students.

She suggested, for example, that Vitti create a more streamlined system of dual credit programs that let kids earn high school and college credits at the same time. Some dual credit programs exist now in the district, but they’re limited to certain schools and not part of a citywide connection with local colleges.


Promoting extracurriculars

At many city schools, budget cuts have squeezed out many of the “extras” that make school engaging for students. The new superintendent should “focus on reopening the swimming pools, marching band, arts, music, dance, and home economics programs to increase career opportunities for students,” Jackson said.

These programs would “increase college scholarship opportunities for students  and decreases fights, conflicts and negative behaviors among students,” she said.


Adding more counselors

To help schools meet students’ needs, the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. Few if any Detroit schools achieve that level of staffing — meaning that students’ considerable needs are not always addressed.

We need a lot more counselors,” said Alvarez, the Western International student. “I go to school with 2,000 kids and there’s only three counselors to turn to … They have to fix your schedule and be there to talk with you but with 2,000 kids, counselors are stressed out themselves.”


Maintaining tight financial controls

The legislative maneuver last summer that created a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District freed Detroit schools from debilitating historic debt, but low enrollment continues to harm the district financially.

The new superintendent needs to have a “very clear strategy to ensure that the financial resources are in the classrooms for the purpose of educating children,” said Cockrel of CitizenDetroit.


Increasing enrollment

Attracting more families to the district will require a mix of all of the above, plus stronger programs that would give families a reason to trust that the district is improving. Vitti promised during his public interview to try multiple strategies to woo back families that have departed for charter and suburban schools.

Jackson called on the new superintendent to try marketing the rebranded district. He should promote “the good news of previous successful students doing well after K-12,” she said. “What’s currently happening in DPSCD and what’s to come. This will automatically increase enrollment.”