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.

Art start

Nearly half of Detroit schools offered no music or art last year. Next year could be different.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students learn to play violin at Spain Elementary-Middle School, one of 21 Detroit schools that offered instrumental music last year. Nearly half of Detroit schools had neither music nor art.

The new Detroit school board is trying to address one of the most persistent complaints about city schools: The fact that roughly half of schools offer no formal instruction in music or art.

Numbers provided by the district show that of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers, and 51 had no instrumental or vocal music teachers during the school year that just ended.

Nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction.

“It’s been a tragic situation that kids were not exposed to that opportunity to take and study the arts,” said Willie McAlister who heads the district’s office of fine arts. “When I was student, all of the schools in the district had art, music, dance, gym, a lot of different things.”

Arts programs took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until last year, said McAlister, a DPS grad who says he’s worked in the district for 39 years.

“The first thing they did was cut the arts.”

But Detroit voters last year elected a new school board that took control of the district in January and made the arts a priority, he said.

He’s now been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30-45 schools.

“We are moving forward with the restoration of our arts and music programs,”McAlister said.

During years without these programs, many schools lost the equipment they once had to theft or lack of maintenance. McAlister said the first step is to visit schools and assess the condition of instruments and other supplies.

The district aims to eventually offer two art components in every elementary and middle school, with some offering visual arts and instrumental music, others perhaps dance and vocal music.

Most of the city’s high schools have at least some kind of arts program. Large selective schools like Cass Tech, Renaissance and the Detroit School of the Arts offer several such programs. But some smaller high schools don’t currently offer music or art.

That’s a problem, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the organization Living Arts, which places teaching artists in Detroit-area schools.

“We need innovative thinkers,” Novoselick said. “Creative thinking and the arts are really in everything that we do so … when we strip the arts from our schools, we are losing so much possibility of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Novoselick said Living Arts teaching artists, who work in both district and charter schools, are often the only arts instructors in their schools. They typically work with one class of kids for two months, two days a week, though they train classroom teachers to continue arts instruction after they’re gone.

“These kids need a reason to come to school,” she said, adding that music and arts can “reach schools and teachers and kids at a level that isn’t going to come through textbooks and memorizing facts.”

Here’s the list Detroit district schools that offer music and art. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.

Music and power

This Detroit teacher uses music to expose students to history, politics and power. ‘They walk in here and they don’t even know who they are.’

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School teacher Quincy Stewart uses music to teach African-American history to his students. "These children have been robbed by this system. ... They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused," he said.

As soon as Quincy Stewart started teaching music, he realized that harmonies and melodies would never be enough — not nearly enough for a man determined to connect his students with their history and culture.

“I’m a black man and these are black children,” said Stewart, 59, a music teacher, band leader and choir director at Detroit’s Central High School. “These children have been robbed by this system, from the cradle until right now. They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused …. They walk in here and they don’t even know who they are.”

So Stewart’s music classes — whether he’s teaching music theory, music appreciation or the fundamentals of playing piano — take kids on a tour through black history, from the nations of Africa to Black Power and Civil Rights.  

At a time when music classes are seen as a luxury in many schools, with districts cutting arts instruction in favor of math and reading, Stewart’s approach to teaching music demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.  The arts can be deeply integrated into core subjects.

Stewart teaches math by walking music theory students through the mathematical details of musical scoring.

He teaches writing by insisting that students write several papers a year on themes covered in class. He cuts them no break on grammar or format, marking up papers with a red pen in a manner more typical of English teachers than of those whose certifications are in instrumental music.

“Some of your papers look like a blood transfusion when I get done,” Stewart told a group of students on a recent morning. “That’s because y’all can’t write.”

But it’s history, power and politics that get the most attention in his classes.

“I found that a majority of my students didn’t know anything about … their own history,” he said.

Students knew about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — but hadn’t gotten the full story.

“They were slaveholders and racists and white supremacists,” Stewart said. “So once we debunk all of the myths … then we get to open up that can of worms about uncovering black history and we use music to do it.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Music teacher Quincy Stewart incorporates math, writing and history in his music classes at Detroit’s Central High School

He starts his class with Africa, playing students the music of the Akan and the Ashanti people, the music of Ghana, Mali and Timbuktu.

“We’ve traveled all the way from the west coast of Africa to Jamaica and the islands to Virginia,” Stewart said. “We moved through slavery up until the first part of the 20th century and we get into Rosewood, to Oklahoma, into all those so-called race riots where blacks were slaughtered because they had towns of their own and the corresponding music that goes with it. This is the time of Louis Armstrong. This is the time of Freddie Keppard. This is the time of Bessie Smith. So we play the music from there.”

On a recent morning, he peppered his students with questions about Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. He drilled them on Hampton’s background, the details of the 1969 Chicago police raid that killed him and the FBI COINTELPRO operation that targeted him and other leaders of 1960s-era social movements.

“And what were some of the songs that were playing at the time of the Black Power movement?” he asked his students. “Give me some songs!”

Stewart questioned his class about the ethics of Civil Rights and Black Power leaders who worked as FBI informants and pressed them to say if, during slavery, they would have considered informing on other slaves in a bid to secure their own freedom. (One student volunteered that he’d gladly choose freedom regardless of the consequences to others).

Stewart even used the arrival of a mouse that came scurrying across his classroom as a teaching moment, comparing the rodent’s struggle to the history of African Americans in the United States.

“I’ve tried to kill him but he’s an elusive mouse,” Stewart said. “He knows his rat history. He knows that down through history, human beings don’t like him. He knows that down through history, people have set traps for him. He knows that down through history, people are out to get him. He’s become very crafty at getting away, waiting until my back is turned and then he runs.”

Stewart’s students say the history lessons have been eye-opening.

“When I signed up for this class, I thought I’d be going over Beethoven and classical artists and stuff but I found information about myself, my history,” said student Lamont Hogan. “This class gave me more information about myself than I could even imagine. Things that I never would have known and never would have imagined without Mr. Stewart teaching.”

Teaching at Central hasn’t been easy, Stewart said.

The state-run Education Achievement Authority, which took over Central and 14 other low-performing Detroit schools in 2012, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years and is going through another transition now as its schools return to the main Detroit district next week.

The changes have taken a toll on teachers and students, said Stewart, who came to the school in 2012, the first year of the EAA.

“It’s kind of like being … at the bottom of a latrine,” Stewart said. “The biggest thud from what comes into a latrine lands at the bottom … Us teachers have really felt the thud of the crap.”

He hasn’t been able to get the resources he felt he needed for his classroom. When he took over a music program that had lost most of its musical equipment to theft before he arrived, he used his own money to buy things like drums, keyboards and guitars for his students to use, he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Music teacher Quincy Stewart said he used his own money to buy many of the musical instruments his students use at Detroit’s Central High School.

Attendance has also been an issue. His first-hour class on a morning in early June had just eight students — a fraction of the 24 enrolled.

“A lot of kids don’t have transportation,” he said. “Some are catching three and four buses to get here and, I hate to say it, but … some of it is just lack of parental support telling them to get their ass up and get to school. They have the liberty of coming to school, in many cases, when they feel like it.”

Now the latest challenge Stewart is facing is a likely cut to his salary.

He is among EAA teachers bracing for dramatic pay cuts when their schools return to the main district.

But Stewart says he’s looking forward to his first summer off in years. Since EAA teachers were required to work through the summer, the school’s return to the Detroit Public Schools Community District will mean a chance for Stewart to spend the summer playing music and performing. He is a professional musician who says he toured the world before going into teaching in his 40s.

Stewart doesn’t know what will happen next year as Central gets a new principal and as that principal responds to changes from the new Detroit superintendent. He said he plans to keep teaching this way as long as he is permitted to do so.

“I have what I can give them and I’m going to give it to them,” he said. “And if a principal comes in here and tells me I can’t do it, then that’s the day I quit. I leave. Period. Because I’m not here for the money. There is no money.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School music teacher Quincy Stewart is a professional musician who got into teaching in his 40s. He played guitar during a choir rehearsal on a recent morning.