meet the new boss

Q&A: New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti is looking for a city house, schools for his kids, and — maybe — a ‘fit’ for Alycia Meriweather

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.

Detroit’s next schools superintendent plans to arrive in the city as soon as May 22 and has a long to-do list for his first few weeks.

Among priorities: Finding a house in the city, checking out schools for his four children and — possibly — finding a role for interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather in his new administration.

“I’ve been impressed with the work that she’s done as interim superintendent,” Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat in a phone interview Saturday, a day after the Detroit school board approved a five-year contract that will pay him $295,000 in his first year and up to $322,000 in later years.

“I think she has been a great ambassador for the city and the district and the children and I believe there’s a place for her on the team,” he said. “I just have to get to know her better and understand the right fit for her.”

Meriweather, who has been a popular interim superintendent, had broad support from teachers, parents and administrators when she applied for the permanent job. Her supporters were angry when she was wasn’t included among the finalists.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday. Vitti said the two have not yet met.

The school board last month chose Vitti to run the 40,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District. He is currently the superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. His last day on the job there will be May 21.

Vitti’s contract formally begins on July 1 but the Dearborn Heights native said he would arrive in Detroit early the week of May 22nd.

He’ll be bouncing back and forth between Detroit and Jacksonville as his children finish out the school year in Florida. His goal, he said, is to permanently move his family to Michigan in mid-June.

“The first couple of weeks for me will be focused on engagement with district staff, school staff — including principals and teachers — and then external engagement with parents and elected officials at the city and state level to really understand what’s working and what we need to do differently.”

Vitti said he plans to live in the city, not the suburbs, and hopes to enroll his four elementary- and middle-school-aged children in public schools. But the fact that two of them have dyslexia could complicate his school search, he said.

“It’s just a matter of finding the right match,” he said. “A couple of my children have … special needs and I want to make sure it’s the right fit at that level.”

In Jacksonville, Vitti created a special school for children with dyslexia (as well as one for kids with autism) and said he’d eventually like to do something similar in Detroit.

“Most public schools systems don’t have the kinds of services that are really about meeting dyslexic learners’ individual needs,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that is specific to Detroit.”

A school for dyslexic learners would not only serve Detroit kids, he said. He believes such a school could be a draw for families from around the region who are looking for a specialized program.

“Statistically, 1 in 5 children face dyslexia and that number can be even greater for those growing up in poverty,” Vitti said. “Their needs are not met even more because they’re growing up in poverty.”

The Detroit district has many challenges including a severe teacher shortage that will need to be addressed but Vitti said he’ll set priorities over the next few weeks based on what he learns as he gets to know the district.

“I really want to hear from people in the district,” he said. “I really look forward to getting out to schools and setting aside some time to meet with teachers and hearing directly from them about what’s working, what’s not and what we need to do differently.”

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