Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was named Urban Educator of the Year Thursday night — a big award that comes with an equally big gift for a district student: A $10,000 college scholarship.
Vitti, who has led the Detroit Public Schools Community District since 2017, was named the top urban educator by the Council of the Great City Schools and Scholastic during a ceremony in Florida. Vitti was among nine finalists for the award, which the council described in a news release as “the nation’s highest honor in urban education leadership.”
Vitti, previously a finalist in 2020, was in competition for the award with superintendents from districts in Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Among the finalists: Diane Green, superintendent in Florida’s Duval County Public Schools, the district Vitti led for five years before he became superintendent in Detroit.
As part of the award, Vitti will receive $10,000 to provide a college scholarship to a DPSCD student.
“What an amazing accomplishment,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, president of the Detroit school board, said in a congratulatory video that played during the ceremony.
Peterson-Mayberry praised Vitti for making staff a priority and for beginning the current school year nearly fully staffed with teachers.
“That’s a commitment. A commitment to our educators, a commitment to our families, and a commitment to our staff,” Peterson-Mayberry said.
Beth Correa, director of corporate responsibility at Flagstar Bank, said in the video that what makes Vitti effective “is he really understands the key ingredients to success for students, and one of those things is building that plan around the whole child.” Correa cited Vitti’s push to expand parent and community engagement, mental health programs, and arts education.
“He’s built his team and his plan around those needs,” she said.
Vitti, who was raised in Dearborn Heights, became Detroit’s superintendent during a precarious time for the district. After years of state control that saw enrollment plummet and dozens of schools close, the district was in financial shambles. A legislative deal in 2016 split Detroit Public Schools into two — the current district to educate students and the old district to collect property tax revenue and pay off a mountain of debt.
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A new board was elected in 2016, and one of its primary functions in 2017 was to hire a superintendent. Vitti, who had spent much of his career in Florida, was seen as an urban educator with a track record for turning around schools who would do the same in Detroit.
He stepped in and immediately made big changes. He brought arts and music education back to schools and revamped a curriculum he said was “an injustice to the children of Detroit.” He pushed for additional pay, often in the form of bonuses, for teachers who had seen their pay cut during state control.
During his first two years, enrollment stabilized, test scores increased slightly, and chronic absenteeism declined. Vitti became a fervent advocate for children in the city, telling an audience at the annual Mackinac Conference, which attracts business, legislative, and philanthropic leaders, that “I want the same thing that your child wants. I may not have your privilege ... but I want the exact same thing.”
The pandemic, though, disrupted the district’s momentum. Vitti led the district through efforts to feed children who suddenly were being educated at home. He sought help from the business and philanthropic community that led to a program that provided tablets and internet access for every student in the district. The district has knocked on more than 60,000 doors since the pandemic began, part of an ongoing effort to connect with students and families, particularly those who haven’t been engaged.
But the pandemic also brought other challenges. High COVID rates in Detroit meant most students learned online during the 2020-21 school year. Last school year, COVID surges forced the district to shut down in-person learning, including for the entire month of January.
Remote learning took a toll, as academic achievement suffered and chronic absenteeism soared. And Vitti has increasingly fielded complaints from critics who say the district hasn’t done enough to improve academic achievement.
In the video that played during Thursday’s ceremony, Dave Meador, former vice chairman of DTE Energy, said the corporate community in Detroit was skeptical about whether they would be able to meaningfully help when Vitti arrived in 2017.
“That concern was put to an end very quickly,” Meador said “He brings deep experience, the ability to establish relationships, trust and the willingness to ask for help, with a small ego and a big heart.”
Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.