Superintendent search

Four reasons why River Rouge’s Derrick Coleman might be Detroit’s next school boss—and four big reasons he won’t, including low scores

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman speaks with reporters following a 12-hour interview to become Detroit's next top school leader.

Derrick Coleman said goodbye to an administrative position with Detroit Public Schools in 2011. Now, the current leader of River Rouge schools said he hopes to come back to fulfill his “calling.”

“You can help a few in River Rouge, but to take the work done in River Rouge and bring that to Detroit and to bring it to scale, you’ll impact much more,” Coleman said Monday as he made his case for why he should be Detroit’s next superintendent.

The second of two finalists for the Detroit district’s top job met with teachers and students, labor and business leaders, parents and community members, and finally the school board over the course of 12 hours on Monday.

A Detroit Public Schools graduate, Coleman responded with brash confidence to questions about the city’s vexing education challenges. He said his track record proves he can make the improvements the city needs, although he did not bring data that he said would support his case, and he raised the possibility of having a personal stake in the district’s future.

“I would hope to” move my children from River Rouge to Detroit schools, Coleman said of daughters who will be in the fifth, 11th, and 12th grades next year. But, he added, “there is also an ex-wife and parenting arrangements so I’m going to do my best to convince her that this is what’s best for them.”

Now that formal interviews have been completed, a group of board members will travel to River Rouge and to Jacksonville, Florida, to see Coleman and Duval County schools chief Nikolai Vitti, who was in Detroit last week, in action.

We rounded up five reasons why Vitti might get the job — and three why he might not. Now, here’s our breakdown of what’s working in Coleman’s favor — and the big issues that could hold him back.

Four reasons why Coleman might get the job:

1. Coleman has experience growing enrollment – the number one thing Detroit needs to do to survive. Since school funding is based on the number of students a district can attract, the district’s declining numbers have devastated its finances. This is a problem River Rouge faced when Coleman came on. During his interviews Monday, he repeatedly cited the fact that he grew enrollment enough to close the $3.4 million deficit he inherited. (Nearly a third of River Rouge’s 1,750 students come over the border from Detroit.) He says he could do the same in his hometown and offered a three-pronged strategy: fixing the issues that cause families to leave, including overcrowding and inadequate teaching; offering busing to all students so they can get to the schools they choose; and “rebranding” the district. “If we don’t change the narrative, the lens through which we are viewed, we are not going to have any credibility with the community,” he said. He said River Rouge had added 24 school buses during his tenure but did not explain how Detroit could pay for additional busing.

2. He has local support, including River Rouge parents so loyal they came out to cheer him on. Renata Williams, a River Rouge resident and parent of two said she had taken her eldest son, a current high school senior, out of River Rouge schools seven years ago, but brought him back three years ago because of the improvements she was seeing with Coleman. “He was community-based, a father, a community leader, and was grounded,” she said of Coleman and her decision to re-enroll her child. “Do I want to see him go?” she asked. “No. But I support him 100 percent, because I know he’d support me.”

3. His approach to safety without metal detectors could appeal to Detroit families wary of prison-like schools. In River Rouge, Coleman said, he was able to lure Detroit families to his district by asking “How can we provide a suburban experience to urban students?” That meant making schools safe without using metal detectors, he said. “We don’t have metal detectors, nor are they needed — and we provide service to the exact same demographic” as Detroit schools, he said. He said he made River Rouge schools safer by addressing students’ social and emotional needs, creating a “trauma-sensitive environment,” and creating alternatives to suspensions for students who violate rules.

4. As a Detroit native and DPS grad, Coleman gets the challenges families in the city face — and that inspires him. “I’ve turned down overtures from other districts to apply,” he said. “I believe I’ve been the candidate of choice in many of those places” but he’s always felt drawn to Detroit. (He was turned down for Ypsilanti’s top spot in 2009.) “You can’t ignore your call,” he said, relating a story about once being offered a job in Pittsburgh and turning it down for one in Detroit. “What I told him was if I were an All-American coming out of college and I had a choice between the Lions and the Steelers, who do you think I’d want to play with? He said, ‘the Steelers,’ and I said ‘No, my job is to resurrect my hometown so I’m going back to Detroit.’”

Four reasons why Coleman might not get the job

1. He has never led a large school district. When Coleman was an assistant superintendent in Detroit from 2008-2011, his position had him in charge of only 29 schools — less than 25 percent of the district’s schools at the time. In his current role, Coleman is in charge of just four schools and around 2,000 students. (In contrast, Vitti runs a district more than three times to the size of DPSCD). Board member Sonya Mays summed up questions about his qualifications: Given that Coleman would be coming from a “district that has a significantly smaller student population that DPSCD does … what in your background gives us the confidence that it should be you?” she asked. Coleman’s answer: “I have never failed at anything I’ve done professionally,” he said. He said River Rouge’s small size was actually an advantage because he did not have a big team helping him make improvements there. And he said the stakes would be high for him as well as for the district, which could be taken over again by the state if schools don’t improve. “I don’t have a safety net,” he said. Coming to Detroit schools would mean leaving a stable job with a school board that supports him, he said. “This is how I feed my family. If I’m not successful, where do I go from here? What has happened to the superintendents that have left here? I tried to do some research and they disappeared.”

2. Test scores in River Rouge remain low — and Coleman didn’t bring data he said would cast this fact in a kinder light. When one board member asked him about the fact that his district has test scores even lower than Detroit schools, he pointed to the the hundreds of new students who’ve enrolled in his district — likely including Detroit students he’s accused of poaching. “You know I probably should have, but if I brought you data, growth data showing the students that have been in my district for four years or longer … I can show that we’ve had significant growth,” he said. “For a ninth grader who comes into our school and they’re functioning at a third grade level, by the time they take the MSTEP, you know at the 11th grade, they’re not going to be proficient but I can show you great growth. … We’ve enrolled over the last two years over 600 new students and so our assessment data isn’t necessarily indicative of the work that we’ve done. It says ‘This student came to us at this entry point.’”

3. He already left the district once. Coleman faced questions about his characterization of the Detroit district’s culture as “toxic” when he left for River Rouge. What would be different this time? His answer: “I would be in charge,” he said, to cheers and laughter. Asked to elaborate, he said, “I’m a dreamer. I’m just a firm believer that children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can become incredible beings if they are able to walk into schools that are filled with those that care, that can help them believe that the impossible is possible.” When he worked previously for the district, he said, first under a superintendent, then under an emergency manager, his ideas were ignored. “I’m not going to stay in a relationship where I feel devalued, where I don’t have any influence or input, so it’s a different day because I’m allowed to create those conditions. With the previous administration, the frustration came about as a result of me having ideas that I knew would work that … they chose to ignore.”

4. He worked for controversial emergency managers. Coleman worked for both Robert Bobb and Roy Roberts, two of the state-appointed emergency managers who had tense relationships with teachers and unions. During the interview with labor and business leaders, teachers union interim president Ivy Bailey asked to address the “elephant in the room,” Coleman’s role with the state-appointed regime. “How would you create a culture and climate in the district where people could trust you, and have confidence in you and come to respect you?” she asked. Coleman was quick to point out that he was actually hired by Connie Calloway, the district’s last general superintendent, and attempted to quell any friction by pointing out he made the decision to leave DPS because he didn’t feel like the emergency managers were listening to his ideas. “My philosophy didn’t align with the national turnaround experts,” he said.

And one thing that could cut either way

1. Coleman is not connected to national education advocacy groups. Vitti faced repeated questions about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the state-run Education Achievement Authority and runs a superintendent training program that incorporates leadership strategies from the business world. Unlike Vitti, Coleman did not participate in that training — which means he lacks both the assets and liabilities that a Broad affiliation would bring. This appears to have made the difference for at least one influential Detroiter: At the end of the day, former interim superintendent John Telford threw his support to Coleman, saying he believed the former DPS assistant superintendent had knocked the interview “out the park.” Telford said he thought Vitti had done a good job but he was turned off by the Florida superintendent’s Broad ties.

Movers & Shakers

Meet the Colorado education researcher you can actually understand

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Have you ever wandered into a thicket of education research terminology and wished you had a translator? Someone who could put “effect size” and “causal inference” into perspective? Or just English?

Kevin Welner’s your man.

On Monday, the Boulder professor was recognized with the 2017 American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award.

Welner, who has been featured in the Washington Post and on NPR, shared a few tips with Chalkbeat.

Education research can be complicated and mind-numbing. What’s your secret to communicating so the general public can understand it?

My personal “secret” is just a lot of editing and rewriting, sharing drafts with friends and colleagues and seeking to squeeze out the academese.

But more important is the secret underlying the National Education Policy Center, which I direct and which is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education: We have a ready pool of hundreds of top researchers from around the country.

So if we need someone who can make sense of a research study with methods that are mind-numbingly complicated, we can quickly reach out to any of a dozen brilliant minds, all trained to fully understand those methods. If we need an expert who knows all the research on early-childhood education, class-size reduction or charter schools, we can do the same. We then work with those experts to engage in the editing process I noted above for myself – all geared toward ensuring that the published version is useful for academics as well as the general public.

What advice would you give to other academics and policy wonks ?

In the graduate programs where we receive our Ph.D. training, we learn almost nothing (or literally nothing) about how to communicate our research to a broader audience. Instead, our training focuses on preparing researchers to add to the scholarly knowledge base. We do that through academic journals, books, conferences, etc.

We designed the National Education Policy Center to help close that gap — to facilitate communications between the scholarly conversation and the conversation that everyone else is having, often about the same issues.

My advice to researchers would be to embrace opportunities to speak to a larger audience, even if it means stepping out of our comfort zones. The truth is that we’ve already found an enormous readiness to do so. Notwithstanding our training, and even the incentive systems that reward university-based researchers for more traditional work, we have seen a strong interest in this work, generally known as “public scholarship.”

You’ve critiqued influential news organizations, including U.S. News and World Report about their rankings of the nation’s best high schools. Why is it important to raise public questions about such things?

At best, each of us can only have real expertise in a very small number of areas. When a medical doctor or auto mechanic tells me something based on their expertise, I’m largely at their mercy. I often don’t know enough to even ask the right questions, let alone to have a B.S. detector for their answers.

What I and my colleagues at the National Education Policy Center have tried to do in the area of education research is to show the broader public a fuller picture. The U.S. News work I did, regarding high school rankings, is a good example. The rankings were undermined by technical problems, sloppiness, and fundamental problems involving choices about how and what to include in their measurement formulas. How would a parent who sees those rankings otherwise know about these weaknesses?

meet the new boss

Nikolai Vitti has been chosen to lead Detroit schools. Read the application that got him the job

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students on the first day of school in Duval County, Florida in 2016. He was selected in 2017 to lead Detroit schools.

In his job application to run Detroit schools, Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote that he was motivated to apply by his “deep and unwavering belief in urban public education” and his “love” for the city of Detroit.

Vitti, who grew up in in Dearborn Heights but has spent his career working in North Carolina, New York and Florida, wrote that the success of the new Detroit school board “will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record,experience, commitment, strength and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future.”

He then lays out his qualifications in a 26-page application that spells out his experience in great detail, including specifics on the work he’s done as superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville since 2012 and in his previous jobs. Read the full application below.

The Detroit school board voted last week to negotiate a contract with Vitti, though those contract negotiations won’t start until at least this week due to a challenge from an activist who claims the search process was illegal.

Vitit beat out another finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman for the job. To read Coleman’s application click here.