The new boss

Detroit’s new schools chief will be Jacksonville, Florida, superintendent Nikolai Vitti

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

Detroit schools will soon have a new leader: Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti was selected Tuesday night by a united school board that voted unanimously to hire the Dearborn Heights native in hopes that his experience running the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, will help him end Detroit’s enrollment decline and rock-bottom test scores and lead the district toward a better future.

The vote to begin contract negotiations with Vitti — the first major decision by the city’s newly elected school board — was almost not unanimous. Member LaMar Lemmons initially voted against Vitti before switching his choice in the interest of allowing the new superintendent to know he has the full support of the board.

“I believe that both candidates are highly qualified. They both could lead our district,” Lemmons said of Vitti and the other finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman.

But he noted that Vitti sometimes struggled in his current job in Duval County because some school board members did not support him — and Lemmons said he didn’t want that to happen in Detroit.

“Whoever my initial pick is, if it’s not the will of the majority, I want it known that I’m changing my vote to be with the majority,” Lemmons said. “I think we need to move with consensus so the new superintendent has the entire support of this body.”

In the vote Tuesday night in the auditorium of the Douglass Academy for Young Men, Vitti beat out Coleman, a Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools graduate. He’ll take over the district officially on July 1, but the board discussed asking him to start sooner to ensure a smooth transition.

Vitti will be taking the reins from Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather.

Meriweather had applied for the permanent position and enjoyed strong community and educator support but was eliminated from consideration last month by board members who decided they wanted a superintendent with at least three years of experience leading a school district.

The city teachers union issued a statement Tuesday night urging Vitti to keep Meriweather involved.

“It is our hope that Meriweather remain an important member of the new superintendent’s executive team,” the union said in a statement.

The search process has been controversial from the start and the vote won’t end the controversy. Activist Robert Davis, whose court motion last week forced the board to cancel an earlier meeting to discuss the candidates due to a violation of the state Open Meetings Act, said he planned to file a motion as early as Wednesday to challenge the legitimacy of Vitti’s selection. He said there were numerous violations of the Open Meeting Act and other rules during the search process.

Member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who led the board’s search committee, said the process has been difficult.

“It has been very, very strenuous, very time-consuming,” she said of a process that involved daylong interviews with two finalists, visits to their districts, and heightened emotions in a politically charged environment. “It is not an easy decision. We have two good candidates and I think the consensus is not that one is better than the other. The question is: Which one is the best for our district at this time to get to where we said we want to be?”

Vitti, who said he is “likely” to enroll his four children in public schools in Detroit, currently runs a district much larger than the 97-school, 40,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District. He’s also worked in Miami, New York City, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Board members who visited his district said they were impressed with several of the schools they visited in Duval County including a school that had dramatically improved student performance after years of receiving F grades from the state of Florida. They also noted a school that specialized in visual arts, one that served children with dyslexia, and a school for overaged students.

The board praised Vitti’s track record as someone who has turned around schools without shutting them down. Members highlighted his work engaging parents and heralded his personal story of overcoming a learning disability to eventually earn graduate degrees from Harvard University.

Vitti will  be introducing himself to Detroiters over the next few months. To get to know him, check out our list of 10 things to know about him as well as the pros and cons that were working for and against him as he applied for the job.

closing arguments

Three Detroit-area charter schools are set to close in June, but not all parents know

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Britney Love, a parent of a first-grader at Woodward Academy.

At least three Detroit-area charter schools will close in June after years of low test scores, leaving hundreds of families to scramble for new schools — including some who haven’t yet been notified.

The schools set to close include Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools. It opened near downtown Detroit in 1996. Also closing are the Starr Detroit Academy, which is located just across the city line in Harper Woods but serves primarily Detroit children, and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck.

All three schools are being closed for academic reasons, said Janelle Brzezinski, spokeswoman for the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees the schools.

“We’re committed to having high academic quality in our schools,” Brzezinski said. “We’ve always held our schools to a high standard.”

A fourth charter school overseen by Central Michigan is also in danger of closing. The Michigan Technical Academy in northwest Detroit was issued a “notice of intent” in February indicating that the university planned to revoke the school’s charter. The university is still reviewing the school’s response, Brzezinski said.

Michigan Technical Academy, which Chalkbeat featured last year, was among 38 Michigan schools threatened with closure by the state earlier this year for being in the bottom 5 percent of state school rankings for three years in a row. State officials have largely backed away from those plans for now, allowing districts to negotiate “partnership agreements” with the state to keep the schools open. Of those schools, 24 were in Detroit.

A press release from the state Education Department on Tuesday about the agreements said Michigan Technical Academy was being closed down by Central Michigan.

Brzezinski said the press release was not accurate.

“We were surprised by that statement,” she said.

The school closings are bound to surprise teachers and parents connected to the schools.

Families at the Starr Academy were notified that their school would close several weeks ago.  But at the Woodward Academy, where the school’s website as of Wednesday still said it was accepting applications for September, parents dropping their children off Wednesday morning said they had no idea their school would close.

“I’m kind of shocked because they had such a great program and the teachers are helpful. I’m actually very shocked,” said Porschua Reliford, 28, who just transferred her three kids into the school in January after a bad experience in a traditional district school.

“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Woodward is the third school that her two fifth-graders, Adrian, 10, and Lawrence, 11, have attended, she said. Her first-grader, Torence, 7, is on his second school.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools, is set to close.

Britney Love, 32, said she was told by the school’s principal just three weeks ago that the school would not be closing.

She was alarmed to hear a different report Wednesday morning.

“I need to find out because I need to be looking for another school,” she said. She has a five year-old entering kindergarten in September and a six-year-old now in the first grade at the school.

“I don’t know what to do because my other school of choice was Starr Academy, and I heard they’re closing too,” she said. “I may have to change my work schedule and everything now.”

Parents just finding out now that they need a new school for next year are already at a disadvantage because many of the city’s top district and charter schools have already begun their enrollment processes. Many schools had application deadlines that passed weeks or even months ago.

“Currently, the timing of when closures are announced and how our city’s enrollment processes work are not in any way aligned to meet the needs of the students and families,” said Maria Montoya, director of Enroll Detroit, an organization that assists families in overcoming enrollment barriers from preschool to college.

“In our work supporting families in securing placements, we hear time and time again from families that it doesn’t make sense to close a school for failing to perform and then not have enough higher quality options available to take on these students,” Montoya said, adding that she’s hopeful that recent conversations will lead to improvements.

Georgia Hubbard, Woodward’s chief academic officer, said the administration planned to inform parents on Friday.

“It’s very upsetting for all of us,” Hubbard said, as she angrily asked a reporter to leave the school’s parking lot Wednesday. “We have 520 children. We have 65 staff people. We are very emotional and very concerned about why they would make such a decision when our school is improving. We are devastated by what they’ve done to us and we definitely need time to orderly communicate this to our parents.”

Woodward has seen some recent improvement in its test scores. On last year’s state exam, 4.9 percent of the school’s students scored high enough to be considered proficient in math and reading, compared to 2.8 percent the year before. But the school is still one of the lowest-ranked schools in the state. It was ranked in the fourth percentile among Michigan schools last year.

Charter school authorizers in Michigan have come under fire in recent years for not holding charter schools accountable for low performance.

The quality of charter schools in the state and how they’re overseen by universities was one argument against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her nomination hearings. Critics charge that DeVos has used her wealth and influence to block regulation of charter schools in the state.

Dan Quisenberry of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school organization, say these closures are not a response to the political climate.

On the contrary, he said, authorizers routinely shut down low-performing charter schools. Three charter schools were closed in Detroit last year, two closed in 2015, three in 2014 and five in 2013, he said.

Closing a school is “a traumatic thing,” Quisenberry said. “No one is saying it’s not. But the goal is to get [students] in a better place.”

Quisenberry’s organization is working with Enroll Detroit to help parents at the Starr Academy learn about other options, he said. The group invited nearby schools that are ranked above the 25th percentile on state rankings to meet with Starr Academy parents.

“I understand the disruption this causes,” Quisenberry said. “The question isn’t, is this ideal? The question is, if kids are in a school that’s not performing for them, should we leave them there? That just doesn’t make any sense.”

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.