Daunting challenges

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

PHOTO: via Twitter
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and wife Rachel Vitti read to students at a recent event in Duval County Florida.

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.”

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.

Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.