Looking to leave?

As two Detroit districts merge, uncertainty over leadership and pay stokes fear of teacher exodus in 11 schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski hugs a student at Detroit's Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

Stefanie Kovaleski loves teaching kindergarten at Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

“I love this building. I love the kids in it,” she said as she doled out hugs and high-fives to her young students while they lined up to get their backpacks at dismissal. “I love that I have autonomy and that I’m treated with professionalism here.”

She hopes to stay in her classroom and remain a part of her students’ lives, she said, but she’s actively talking to banks and credit unions about working outside education.

“I can’t see myself out of teaching but I’ve definitely started looking in the private sector,” she said.

Kovaleski, 33, is one of many teachers in the state-run Education Achievement Authority who say they’re considering leaving their schools in what some fear could be a mass exodus — the kind of disruption that could drive down test scores, drive up behavioral issues and create new challenges for children whose lives are already tumultuous.

“These children have very little stability in their lives,” Kovaleski said of a school where 98.7 percent of students are identified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state. “The people in this building are the only stable people they have.”

The EAA teachers fear major pay cuts and changes to school leadership when their schools return this summer to the main Detroit school district after five years of state control. Their departures could undermine  a group of 11 schools that have weathered multiple changes and enrollment declines since they were taken out of the Detroit Public Schools in 2012 and put into the state’s recovery district.

As the two districts prepare to reunite July 1, officials in both districts say they’re taking steps to ensure as much stability as they can.

The main district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — extended offers to all EAA teachers who have not been rated ineffective so they can stay in their current jobs.

The Detroit school board this week lifted a hiring freeze that had been holding up decisions about principal and assistant principal jobs in the schools.

And leaders from both districts have been meeting regularly to discuss details of the transition, from summer school to building upgrades.

But with just weeks to go before the end of the school year, EAA teachers still don’t know what their salaries will be next year or who their principals will be and they’ve grown impatient with the lack of information.

“Many of us now feel that our backs are against the wall,” wrote Rubye Richard, an English teacher at the EAA’s Mumford Academy High School, in one of many letters EAA teachers have written to the Detroit school board in recent weeks.

“If decisions are not made and communicated to us, we are forced to continue searching for employment in other districts,” she wrote.

The delay in teachers knowing their salaries is related to the fact that the main district is negotiating a contract with its teachers union.

If negotiations don’t change salaries much from the current contract, EAA teachers could see major pay cuts. First-year EAA teachers, who are not in a union, now make $45,000 a year compared to less than $36,000 for their unionized DPSCD counterparts.

Some of the pay discrepancy is because EAA teachers worked summers while Detroit district teachers can make extra money teaching summer school. A DPSCD spokeswoman noted that the main Detroit district also pays more generous benefits than the EAA.

But the larger impact on EAA teachers will come from the decision about how much experience EAA teachers will be given credit for when they become DPSCD teachers.

When the EAA calculated teacher salaries, it gave new hires credit for all their years of experience. That means Kovaleski now makes $65,000 a year — a salary based on ten years of teaching including four years at Bethune, one year in the Dearborn school district and five years at a Detroit charter school.

But under Detroit’s current union contract, new teachers to the district typically get just two years of credit, regardless of how long they’ve worked in other districts.

Though the contract lets the district credit teachers with up to eight years of experience under special circumstances, such as critical vacancies, teachers like Kovaleski could essentially have to start from scratch.

The current Detroit teacher contract pays $40,643 to teachers with a master’s degree and two years of experience so Kovaleski could be looking at a nearly $15,000 pay cut.

Kovaleski’s mother lives with her, has congenital heart failure and $50,000 in debt from a recent hospital stay, she said. “The bills keep rolling in so when I stop and think, man, can I afford to take [a pay cut]? I just don’t know.”

Teachers union president Ivy Bailey said she regrets that some EAA teachers might take pay cuts. But she also notes that teachers in the main district have had stagnant wages for years.

“It would not be fair for someone from the EAA with only two years to come in here and make more than a teacher who has been here and … weathered the storm through all of this,” Bailey said.

Salary Comparison

The uncertainty has already driven some EAA teachers out the door.

District data show that 43 percent of EAA teachers did not come back for the current school year — twice the attrition rate from the year before. And principals say more teachers than usual have left mid-year.

At Bethune, principal Alisanda Woods said four of her 32 teachers have left since September.

Some left because they were worried about their salaries in DPSCD, Woods said. Others left because Bethune was one of 25 Detroit schools that were threatened with state closure this year. The closures were averted when the district this month signed a “partnership agreement” with the state, but some teachers were already gone.

Massive teacher turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s part of a deliberate improvement plan, said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research.

In Washington D.C., public schools saw improvement as a result of teacher turnover. “It was a very high functioning school district investing a lot of effort into screening new teacher applications and encouraging ineffective teachers to leave,” Goldhaber said.

But absent an effort like that, he said, studies show that too many new teachers will hurt kids. “Even if you were to replace a teacher with a second teacher of equal quality, just the disruptive effect of a teacher leaving will have” a negative impact, he said.

EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme, who is leaving Detroit to start a new job in July, said she’s been working closely with her DPSCD counterparts to keep the EAA schools as stable as possible after the transition, but unanswered questions about teachers and principals are making that difficult.

“I’m really worried about the fact the we haven’t finalized offers” for teachers, Conforme said. “It’s the middle of May … That’s deeply concerning.”

The EAA schools, which were put into the district originally because of years of poor results, are still some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, but most of them have seen recent improvements. Conforme said she worries that progress could be disrupted if teachers leave.

The main Detroit district is already trying to fill more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

The EAA schools saw dramatic teacher turnover back in 2012 when the new district began.

“There was a big shakeup,” said David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor who wrote a paper on the early years of the EAA. But that big shakeup wasn’t well planned, he said. “The EAA was a spectacular train wreck right out of the gate.”

These years later, he said, he was hoping the process of returning the EAA schools to the main district would be smoother. (Of the original 15 EAA schools, three have been converted to charter schools and one has closed).

Conforme said she hopes most of her teachers  ultimately will decide to stay because if they leave, families will follow.

“What families and students care about is that there’s consistency with the teachers that have been teaching them, the support staff that have been supporting them and the leaders the families have gotten comfortable with,” Conforme said. “That part is critical.”

 

familiar face

Former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather ‘discussing’ new role in Detroit district under superintendent Nikolai Vitti

New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets principals and job applicants with former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather at a district job fair.

When Nikolai Vitti worked a teacher hiring fair Tuesday night, the new Detroit superintendent brought a partner — a familiar face — to stand beside him.

It was Vitti’s first full day running the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And although he was the new guy in a room full of school principals, administrators and job applicants, he stood side-by-side with someone more well-known: Alycia Meriweather, the district veteran who served for 14 months as interim superintendent until Vitti took over this week.

Whether Meriweather’s presence at the hiring fair suggests a permanent role for her in Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet been decided, she said. “We’re discussing that right now. He has made it clear that there is a position for me and, right now, it’s just a matter of me having further dialog with him about what that might look like and figure out if it’s a good fit for me.”

The news of Meriweather possibly staying on in the district could be comforting to the teachers and staff who strongly urged the school board to consider Meriweather for the permanent post. Teachers circulated petitions and protested outside a board meeting during a finalist interview after Meriweather was dropped from consideration.

For now, Meriweather is officially a senior advisor to Vitti — a role that will last at least until the end of June.

“My main focus right now is making sure this transition is as smooth as possible,” Meriweather told Chalkbeat. “Dr. Vitti and I have had really good conversations. I think we see things very similarly and he’s made it very clear that his intention is to build on the work that’s been done, which is very affirming and encouraging.”

For now, Meriweather, who is a graduate of the district and has worked in Detroit as a classroom teacher and administrator throughout her career, said she’s focused on a smooth transition.

“I really, at the heart of hearts, just want the district to continue to evolve,” she said. “I need him to be successful because if he’s successful, the district is successful, which means my kids are taken care of.”

Pay check

New Detroit superintendent: Detroit teachers deserve a pay raise (eventually)

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

On his first full day as Detroit’s new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti had this message for the city’s teachers: You deserve a pay raise.

“We can’t just talk about the value that we have with teachers. We have to pay them accordingly,” Vitti told reporters Tuesday on a busy first day that included radio interviews, meetings with district staff and sit-downs with school board members.

“The teaching job in Detroit is much harder than the teaching job in surrounding suburban districts and we have to pay to that level,” Vitti said.

Vitti made his remarks outside a hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School where district officials were hoping to fill hundreds of vacancies.

A persistent teacher shortage has saddled the district with overcrowded classrooms — some with as many as 40 to 50 kids — and with long-term substitutes who don’t have the credentials to effectively teach subjects like math and science.

It’s an issue that comes up repeatedly when Vitti talks to Detroit educators, he said.

“Time and time again, you’re hearing issues of too many vacancies, loss of prep time, too-large class sizes and we need to address that issue immediately,” said Vitti who noted that his first day included long talks with the district Human Resources director as well as leaders of the city teachers union to discuss teacher hiring.

Vitti’s immediate plans for addressing the shortage include trying to streamline the teacher hiring process. He’ll also be looking at ways to redirect teachers from administrative and support roles to get them back into classrooms.

But the key to recruiting and retaining teachers, he said, will be to focus on salaries.

“We have to become more competitive with pay,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be done immediately, at scale, but it’s something that I will be looking closely at in concert with the school board to look at what does our budget look like right now? Where are some opportunities to do things differently? To increase pay?

A pay raise is “not going to happen overnight,” he said. “But it’s something that we do have to think about long term if we’re going to recruit and retain teachers.”

The district is currently negotiating a contract with its teachers union. Union members have seen few pay raises in recent years as the district has struggled with financial difficulties.

Vitti officially took over the district Monday following a vote by the Financial Review Board, which oversees district finances. Here’s how he spent Tuesday, according to a district spokeswoman:

  • Dr. Vitti conducts morning  interviews
  • 8:30-11a.m. – Dr. Vitti meets with District leadership group. Dr. Vitti visits other DPSCD departments in the Fisher Building. Meets with DFT Representative
  • 11:30-1p.m. – (Lunch) One-on-one with Board Member
  • 1:30 -2p.m.  – School Tour – Golightly Education Center
  • 2-2:30p.m. – Open
  • 2:30-3p.m. School Tour King – New Add
  • 3:45 -4:15p.m. – Teacher Listening Session – King High School (20 teachers)
  • 4:30-5p.m. – DPSCD Teacher Fair – King High School
  • 5p.m.-6p.m. – One-on-one with Board Member
  • 6p.m. Opening Welcome – Academic Committee Meeting – King High School