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.

 

Week In Review

Week in Review: Frank talk on race, history — and what Detroit teachers deserve

School may be out for the summer but Detroit teachers are busy reviewing the tentative contract deal their leaders announced last week. The deal could mean two years of pay bumps but it’s gotten mixed reviews from teachers who were hoping to see salaries return to where they were before a 10 percent pay cut in 2011.

Also busy this summer are the community leaders behind the Coalition 2.0 effort, which aims to address some of the unfinished business of last year’s Detroit education fight. This time, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren is focused on improvements that can be made locally. They’re hoping to avoid the legislature that last year crushed the hopes of advocates who wanted a powerful Detroit Education Commission to oversee district and charter schools.

“Our intentions and energy will look to Detroit, not Lansing. Detroiters must develop a vision, a plan and execute it with fidelity if we are to improve education practices in our city.”

— Tonya Allen, co-chair, Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren

Read on for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s education news. Also, this interview with new Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is worth a listen. He talks frankly about race, history and the “two sets of expectations,” that for too long have let people outside Detroit think it’s okay for problems to persist here that would never be allowed somewhere else.

Coalition 2.0

  • A year after the tearful defeat of the Detroit Education Commission, local leaders are looking for other ways to bring order to Detroit schools. District and charter school leaders are meeting in hopes of “designing a process in which many of these DEC-like functions can occur.”
  • One schools advocate called the conversations “a good start,” adding “hopefully these longtime rivals can come together to address issues such as school/community logistics, enrollment and transportation.”

“Never going to get what we deserve.”

  • A tentative deal for a new contract would raise Detroit teacher pay 3 percent next year and 4 percent the following year, though teachers would have to wait longer to reach the top of the pay scale.
  • The deal must be approved by teachers, who have mixed feelings about whether the raises are enough. They’ll be voting by mail-in ballots that must be postmarked by July 19. A city financial oversight board must also sign off on the deal.
  • Some of the teachers who are most disappointed by the offer are those who, until last week, worked for the state-run recovery district. The deal would credit them for just two years of experience regardless of how many years they’ve been in the classroom. Advocates for the former recovery district schools fear this could trigger a teacher exodus, especially as other area districts give teachers more credit for their experience.
  • Vitti called the deal a “first step” toward higher pay raises, while a union leader said negotiators tried for more money but settled for what they could get. “We’re never going to get what we deserve to get,” she said.

All about Vitti

  • In an interview on WDET’s Detroit Today, Vitti talked about why he, as an educator, has a different approach to fixing the schools than the state-appointed emergency managers who preceded him. “The system has been run as if it was a system in bankruptcy where you were just releasing assets without an overall vision for how to build student performance,” he said.
  • He also talked frankly about his role as the first white man to lead the majority-black Detroit schools in a generation. “It brings forth a great deal of responsibility and pressure that I embrace,” he said.
  • One schools advocate encouraged Vitti to consider charter schools as he works to improve the district. “More people must realize that half the children in Detroit attend charter schools,” he wrote. “You can’t ignore them, you can’t cut them off and you can’t act like they live in another city.”
  • Vitti won praise this week from a Florida newspaper that noted that many Jacksonville schools got higher grades from the state this year thanks to Vitti’s leadership. “He replaced a large number of principals, which caused some angst, but it was based on a sense of urgency,” the paper wrote, adding that Vitti “took a school system that was already on the rise and led it to new heights.”
  • Closer to home, Vitti also won praise from Mayor Duggan for quickly cutting through red tape to help turn 16 Detroit schools into recreation centers this summer — something the mayor said emergency managers wouldn’t do. The “summer fun centers” will have free meals for kids.

Lansing, leaders and lawsuits

  • Gov. Rick Snyder has ended his brief reign over the office charged with holding schools accountable. Two years after he took the state School Reform Office from the state Board of Ed to make it a gubernatorial office, he has given it back. The move comes four months after the reform office aborted a badly executed effort to close 38 low-performing schools.
  • Some school groups applauded the Lansing education shakeup. Others were steamed.
  • Leaders of school districts involved in lawsuits against the state object to a provision in the state budget that would penalize schools that use public dollars to sue the state. The provision, which critics called an “overreach,” came in response to districts suing to stop the closings.
  • State officials have been barred from spending public money to help private schools comply with state mandates — at least for now. A judge plans to revisit the issue next month.
  • The state’s top lawyer says education officials can’t withhold funds from schools that have culturally insensitive mascots.
  • A state business group is researching strategies to improve Michigan schools.
  • Two supporters of the state’s recent teacher pension changes explain why they think pension reform will help Michigan teachers. But aspiring teachers and the heads of several colleges of education say that the changes feed the narrative that teachers aren’t valued.
  • Michigan virtual charter schools are growing in numbers, but lagging in achievement.

In other news

  • One of the Detroit’s most struggling high schools is getting an overhaul — and a new name. The school will become the fourth Detroit high school to admit only students who score well on an admissions exam.
  • Leaders of a program that puts tutors into Detroit classrooms say schools that participate in their program are more likely to see their test scores climb.  The program also encourages young people to become teachers.
  • As a seven-year-old school advocacy organization closes its doors, one former staffer reflects on the group’s accomplishments including its role in launching a long list of organizations that push for better schools. One organization she didn’t mention but could have: Chalkbeat. We launched this year in part thanks to support from Excellent Schools Detroit.
  • A northwest Detroit charter school that Chalkbeat wrote about last fall has now officially joined the list of Detroit charters closing their doors forever.
  • An organization that trains district, charter, and nonprofit staff is recruiting Detroit education leaders to join Peer Learning Communities starting this fall.
  • A boxing gym that tutors Detroit students has gotten a $100,000 grant from 100 women.

 

Week In Review

The week in review: Goodbye, EAA and master teachers. Hello, Alycia Meriweather and Big Sean

Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti named his first deputy, former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, center. She introduced Vitti in May as he met with principals and applicants at a job fair.

Today marks the last day in Michigan’s six-year-old experiment in school turnaround. Long-struggling schools in a special turnaround district are returning to Detroit’s district — just as new schools chief Nikolai Vitti shakes up the central administration to get more educators into the classroom. Check out that news and more below and have a great holiday weekend!

— Philissa Cramer, Chalkbeat managing editor

VITTI WATCH: During his fifth week on the job as Detroit’s new schools chief, Nikolai Vitti geared up for a firing spree. To get more educators into the classroom (and save money), he’s cutting 70 administrative positions, including roles that support principals, and ending the district’s year-old “master teacher” program. The 140 teachers who had been helping their colleagues through the program will spend the time with students instead.

Vitti also made one big hire: Alycia Meriweather, who was widely beloved as interim superintendent, is his first deputy pick. “Some people are afraid to have talented people around them because somehow that person might outshine you,” he said. “But the strongest leaders are comfortable with who they are and recognize that strong people make them look better.”

Oh, and he rubbed elbows with a rap star:

END OF AN EAA: Today is the last day for the Education Achievement Authority, Michigan’s six-year-old turnaround district. Its 15 schools are returning to the Detroit district. One researcher’s take: “The EAA could fairly be regarded as a train wreck of educational policy.” A principal’s: “There was a lot of good … that could be lost.” What’s clear: The change comes with uncertainty and risk.

HELP WANTED: Detroit is still looking for 100 more teachers. One potential source: Michigan’s second-largest school district, which just laid off 47. But does the state really have a teacher shortage? Depends on the job.

ARTS AND CRAFTS: The district is looking to add music and art teachers to make a dent in a dispiriting statistic: Half of schools offered no arts instruction at all last year.

Meanwhile, local CEOs are paying to update Randolph Tech, which has few students but potential to add skilled labor to the city. Bonus: Here’s some more stuff CEOs are saying about the city’s schools.

LANSING REPORT: Gov. Rick Snyder is gearing up for another round on education, according to Ingrid Jacques: In his remaining 18 months in office, he wants to get himself more power, figure out how to improve or close low-performing schools, and advance “competency-based education,” a model for measuring learning that’s gaining traction nationally. He also wants to change graduation requirements to include career training.

IN OTHER NEWS: Michigan is increasingly scrutinizing whether principals are certified. The state’s new accountability plan got criticism from advocates of high stakes. Advocates explain why a new analysis of the state’s funding system is needed. Michigan’s highest court ruled that private religious schools’ admissions decisions can be reviewed to make sure they follow laws protecting people with disabilities.

AND VIEWS: The Detroit News reminds us that last year’s Detroit schools bailout package came with strings — and says they should be followed.

MORE FROM CHALKBEAT: New research about school vouchers finds short-term negative effects. Middle-class districts in Memphis are getting more money for poor students, even though they don’t have more of them. Yearlong teacher residencies are in vogue, but research suggests they might not benefit students.