Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit superintendent — and fights over funding, vouchers and vaccines

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

While the nation’s education world was focused this week on Betsy DeVos, proposed school budget cuts and the fight over who benefits from vouchers, the spotlight in Detroit was trained on Nikolai Vitti. The new superintendent got his final approval from the city Financial Review Commission on Monday and spent his first day Tuesday meeting with teachers and administrators about problems facing the district. Among his early conclusions: Detroit teachers need a raise.

“We have to become more competitive with pay. 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?”

— Nikolai Vitti, superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

Read on for more about Vitti and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, check out the play that a group of Detroit student activists wrote and performed to help explain the recent political turmoil in Detroit education.

All about Vitti

  • The Detroit Financial Review Commission, which has authority over all major district spending, gave Vitti the official green light to take over the district on Monday. The vote came despite commissioners’ concerns about the length of Vitti’s five-year contract and whether the district could afford his nearly $300,000 annual salary.
  • On his first day on the job, Vitti got an earful about the need for the district to fill teacher vacancies.
  • One challenge to doing that, he said, is low teacher salaries in the district and the fact that it’s harder to teach in the city than the suburbs. “We can’t just talk about the value that we have with teachers. We have to pay them accordingly,” he said.
  • Vitti made those comments at a teacher job fair where 200 applicants applied for open district jobs. That’s a good start but the district is currently facing a 263-teacher shortage — and that’s without considering new hires that will be needed to fill vacancies created by retirements and by the expected departure of teachers from schools in the state reform district. The Education Achievement Authority schools are returning to the main district this summer.
  • As Vitti worked the room at the job fair, he was accompanied by Alycia Meriweather. The former interim superintendent is now a senior advisor to Vitti but says she and Vitti are “discussing” a permanent role for her.
  • In his first few days, Vitti visited several schools including MLK High School, Golightly Education Center and the Bates Academy
  • As Vitti starts his new job, the Detroit News notes several forces — including the city teachers union — could block his path to success. But a News columnist and radio host writes that Detroiters need to put their trust in Vitti as he “takes the reins of one of the most publicly distrusted and vilified institutions in the city.”
  • As Vitti prepared to leave his previous job running the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, a Florida columnist recalled Vitti’s frenetic “non-stop” pace in that job.
  • In Jacksonville, Vitti was known as a “reformer who produces quick results,” the Detroit News writes in a story that notes Vitti’s rapid pace of change generated some tension with teachers and staff. The paper also reports that Vitti used tens of millions of dollars he attracted in philanthropy to recruit teachers to the Florida district.

In other Detroit news

  • These Detroit student activists wrote a play about recent political turmoil in Detroit schools. Watch it here.
  • A “family literacy” program at a school in southwest Detroit teaches immigrant parents to speak and read English in the same building where their children are learning. The program has dramatically reduced student absences.
  • Activists are fighting to save the Detroit district’s award-winning lunch program.
  • A Detroit mom says her son is facing expulsion after helping a student who was choked by a teacher. Video of the fight shows the teacher pushing the student.
  • Today is the deadline to nominate a Detroit teacher for the Detroit Goodfellows’ annual Teacher of the Year Contest. Students in grades 3-8 can nominate their favorite teacher.
  • Here’s the story of the events that almost led to a unified effort to help Detroit schools — almost.
  • These Detroit students mix day jobs with school.

Across the state

  • The head of Wayne County schools says the state’s current school funding system “simply no longer works for our students, regardless of where they attend school.”
  • A bill that would let charter schools give enrollment preference to low-income students has advanced in the state house.
  • The state’s lieutenant governor says he personally reached out to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about his concerns that the state’s plan to comply with new federal school accountability rules will shortchange children with disabilities.
  • Lawmakers in the House and Senate forged ahead with bills to cut new teachers out of pensions and switch them to a 401(k)-type plan. Legislative experts say making newly hired teachers ineligible for a pension would cost the state $465 million more a year in the first five years. The Free Press says the proposal doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but the Republican House Speaker called it the “best way forward.”
  • A House panel is considering legislation that would allow parents to enroll unvaccinated children in school without signing a waiver. Here’s what’s at stake in the debate and a database that lets parents look up the vaccination rate in their children’s school.
  • About 61.5 percent of graduates from Michigan public high schools in 2016 were enrolled in college within six months of graduation, according to state data. Look up the college-going rates at individual high schools here. Here’s a list of the 53 schools with the highest college-going rate in the state.
  • A GOP lawmaker makes the case for why the state should allow school districts to start the school year before Labor Day.
  • A court hearing on the legality of $2.5 million included in the state budget to reimburse nonpublic schools for health and safety mandates was canceled. The appeals court hearing the case agreed to hear from several parties who believe they were wrongly denied the right to join the case as defendants.
  • A Detroit News columnist highlights an Indiana student who received a voucher to contrast Michigan laws that bar public funds for private schools.
  • This tiny Michigan school district has been in turmoil.
  • The East Detroit school district has changed its name.
  • The Detroit News named 24 local seniors to the paper’s list of “outstanding graduates.”
  • A local high school gym was closed for bedbugs.

 

Week In Review

Week in Review: Discount houses — and new faces at the top of Detroit schools

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

The big news this morning is the announcement from Mayor Mike Duggan that Detroit teachers and school employees — district, charter and parochial — will now get 50% discounts on houses auctioned through Detroit’s Land Bank Authority. That could help draw more residents to the city — and possibly give school officials another perk they can use to attract teachers in their efforts to address severe teaching shortages.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future. It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.

— Mayor Mike Duggan

New schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said that hiring teachers is a priority. He’s also busily hiring a team of top advisors to help him run the Detroit schools. To do that, he’s drawing heavily from his Florida contacts. Of the 16 cabinet members he’s identified, five are people he worked with in Jacksonville or Miami. Want to learn more about them? We’ve assembled a gallery of who they are, what they’re doing and how much they’ll be paid.

Also this week, we featured the latest installment in our Story Booth series: An educator who says the inspiration she received from teachers in the Detroit Public Schools helped her guide one of her own students through a personal tragedy. If you know a student, parent or educator with a Detroit story to tell for a future Story Booth, please let us know.

In Detroit

  • Mayor Duggan is planning to announce details of the Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program at a press conference this morning.
  • The Floridians in Vitti’s cabinet are joined by veterans of the Detroit Public Schools and several officials who worked for the dissolved state-run recovery district. Among them are former teachers and principals, lawyers and a real estate developer.
  • This weekend’s March for Public Education — tomorrow in Clark Park — was organized by a local resident who couldn’t get time off work to attend the march in Washington.
  • Students who attended Southeastern High School last year won’t have to take a test to return in the fall — but new students will. The school will become the city’s fourth exam school. “I’m not going to suggest that in one year Southeastern is going to be Renaissance and Cass,” Vitti said, “but I think we can make it successful.”
  • A revived local restaurant association is working with Detroit schools to train students and grads for jobs in downtown and Midtown restaurants.
  • A Detroit schools advocate explains why the relationship between Detroit and the state is like that of a child and her abusive mother.
  • Detroit’s former “rebel lunch lady” now has plans to shake up school food in Houston.
  • Here’s how the work formerly done by the defunct Excellent Schools Detroit organization will be divvied up among other groups.
  • A convicted former Detroit principal has been given more time before she has to report to prison.

Across the state

  • Districts that sued the state to stop the forced closures of struggling schools are close to reaching a settlement. The state backed down on 38 proposed school closings but maintains the right to close persistently low-performing schools in the future.
  • Michigan is one of 23 states that did not meet all the federal requirements for educating its students with disabilities.
  • A fiscally conservative Michigan think tank has issued a helpful, comprehensive guide to how school funding works in Michigan.
  • These three early childhood centers demonstrate how schools can be community hubs. They offer medical and dental clinics and services such as job training for parents.
  • Michigan schools are changing their zero-tolerance discipline policies to comply with a new state law.
  • A state science and technology advisory council has chosen to invest in six STEM programs that have been proven effective for Michigan schools.

Teachers united

  • The state’s largest teachers union used a collection agency to force teachers to pay $241,000 in delinquent dues between 2013 and 2016.
  • A state teachers union leader says teachers getting summers off is a dated myth. Teachers “work second and even third jobs to support their families, while finding creative ways to prepare for the next school year,” he wrote.
  • A critic of teacher pension changes says the bill Gov. Rick Snyder signed last week will squeeze teachers and cost the state more money.

 

Week In Review

Week in review: Could Detroit’s main school district be entering unchartered territory?

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

Even as new superintendent Nikolai Vitti plows ahead with shaking up district leadership in his quest to improve the city’s 100-plus traditional schools, much of the focus this week has been on the future of the district’s charter schools.

The district has been overseeing charter schools for more than two decades. Now, Vitti says it potentially should get out of the charter school business to focus on traditional schools. That could lead to charter schools closing — like this one that the district quietly closed last month amid concerns about its poor financial footing.

Read on for more on these stories. And, if you have five minutes of your time to donate today, please give us some honest feedback. Help improve our journalism by taking Chalkbeat’s annual reader survey.

Chartering new territory

The shakeup

  • Vitti has overhauled the district’s executive leadership team, bringing in people he worked with in Florida, educators and leaders from the Detroit area, and former officials with the EAA.
  • Nearly all the people he’s hired have been teachers or principals — and he said at this week’s school board meeting, they’re “mission-driven.”
  • The changes have sent some longtime district administrators packing: Vitti has so far eliminated roughly 70 administrative positions. He also cut multiyear contracts and perks like car allowances from those who remain.
  • The district will run more efficiently now, he said. “I found that there were one and two positions within departments that were duplicated or responsibilities shared that could be streamlined,” he said, adding that the network structure that principals used to report to “led to communication and work product backlog.”

In Detroit

  • A year after Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that created the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, one former GOP leader writes why he thinks the “fresh start is working,” arguing that Detroit is “not the ‘wild west’ that defenders of the status quo say that it is.”
  • Plans to change the name of Southeastern High School hit a snag at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
  • District officials will try to renegotiate the controversial lease, signed by a state-appointed emergency manager on his last day on the job in December, that turned a west-side elementary school over to a nonprofit group. That negotiation isn’t likely to satisfy the biggest critics of the deal.
  • The district says this year’s graduates have collectively earned $170 million in college scholarships and grants.
  • Limited access to quality early childhood education has a high cost in Detroit.
  • A state health and safety agency has fined the district for unsafe water at one school.
  • A water main break closed one of the schools serving this week as a “summer fun center.”
  • One of the city’s Head Start providers has picked up a $12.5 million grant to serve 168 more west side children and their families.

From the capitol

  • The state’s top education official says conversations with the federal government have been “combative” since the state abandoned plans to assign letter grades to schools in favor of a “dashboard” that compiles data in a variety of categories. The state is preparing to begin discussions with the U.S. education department over how it complies with new federal education laws.
  • The Detroit News is unimpressed with Snyder’s school improvement efforts, saying they’ve “ended up being more about optics than the substantial changes Michigan families deserve.”
  • Snyder signed a controversial teacher pension overhaul into law. The plan will take effect next year.
  • An advocate says the state’s 56 intermediate school districts need to be more transparent about how they collectively spend $1.6 billion on special education and other services.
  • Another advocate makes the case for why schools should focus on a broad-based education — rather than career readiness.