District spotlights how COVID relief money is helping to address staffing

A student writes on a piece of paper at their desk.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District’s school board approved a series of contracts and items during the August school board meeting, including the contract extension for literacy nonprofit Beyond Basics. (Nathan W. Armes for Chalkbeat)

This past school year, the Detroit school district used the COVID relief funding it received to expand programming and provide additional staffing support at individual schools, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti on Tuesday night recounted the successes and challenges of the Detroit Public Schools Community District during its first full year of receiving federal COVID relief aid.

The district has been earmarked to receive $1.27 billion in aid over three stimulus packages.

From placing nurses in every school and increasing mental health resources and staff support, to creating and expanding the DPSCD Virtual School and after school and summer school programming, Vitti said that the extra federal funding boosted academic and enrichment opportunities for students while preventing staff layoffs. The federal funding, Vitti added, “provided a budget gap” for the district as it saw a decline in student enrollment during the pandemic. Student enrollment is tied directly to per-pupil funding the district needs to finance staffing and scholastic programs.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting in Detroit, board members quickly approved the academic calendar, the school code of conduct, and a contract extension with the literacy tutoring nonprofit Beyond Basics.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights of the meeting:

District renews contract with Beyond Basics

The Detroit school board is re-upping through June its contract with Beyond Basics for the upcoming school year.

In August 2021, the board initially approved a contract with Beyond Basics — to range from $9.9 million to $12.62 million — to provide small-group and one-on-one tutoring for elementary and high schoolers two or more grades behind in reading. The contract was funded in part through federal COVID relief dollars. 

At the time, the district disclosed that Rachel Vitti, a longtime literacy advocate and wife of the Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, worked as a director of Beyond Basics.

In the wake of public criticism, Rachel Vitti resigned from her position at Beyond Basics on July 11.

Tuesday’s unanimous vote allows the district to use money left from the 2021 contract to fund the tutoring program this coming school year. At the July school board meeting, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti shared data showing that students who were tutored through Beyond Basics gained nearly two years in their reading level.

In last year’s contract, the district expected Beyond Basics to tutor 1,500 students. The program reached only 620 students, including about 540 high schoolers and 80 K-8 students in the 21-22 school year. 

For the upcoming school year, Vitti told the school board Tuesday that the district wants to place Beyond Basics in more K-8 schools to address the literacy gap in earlier grades.

During and after the meeting, community members questioned the district’s strategy to improve literacy and the board’s quick approval of the contract with Beyond Basics.

“They (the school board) should have said something about the contract, at least a statement,” said Helen Moore, a longtime Detroit education activist and a leading voice for the Let’s Read volunteer-based reading program. Moore also questioned the board’s record,  referencing the Nov. 8 elections for four board seats.

 “We need people who have got some sense and care about our children,” she said.

The Student Code of Conduct gets updated dress code

The board also approved an annual revision of the Student Code of Conduct, including marginal changes to the dress code and student discipline policies.

Last school year, activists from Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan called on the district to eliminate its uniform and dress code, citing the uneven and subjective enforcement against female and marginalized students.

The revised policy states that “students cannot be excluded from school for not wearing their uniforms.”

If families have complaints, “the best thing to do is reach out to a principal or familiar teacher to know the uniform requirements,” Vitti said.

Students and families who believe they’ve been unfairly targeted for dress code enforcement may contact school staff or the district’s Office of Equity, Advocacy and Civil Rights.

On Tuesday board President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry and public speakers asked how the district would support families who couldn’t afford to pay for uniforms.

Most schools have discretionary funds to pay for uniforms in certain cases, Vitti said. If those funds run out, the district would allocate schools additional funds, he said.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

Reporting intern Grace Tucker contributed to this story.

Clarification: This story has been updated to make it clear that the Detroit Public Schools Community District used the COVID relief funding it has received to provide additional staffing support to district schools, not to use the one-time funding for teacher salaries.

The Latest

In its budget proposal, Chicago Public Schools is giving charters a slight funding boost overall, although some could still get funding cuts.

Writing for Perspicacity Magazine isn’t like a class assignment, teacher Ben Boruff said. Students have to be brave to put their work out for all to read.

District leadership has balked at the idea, saying a loan ‘only shifts the problem’ to future years.

Despite a petition with more than 65 signatures from the school's families, parents say it is unclear why the club hasn't been formed.

Philadelphia schools will get a $232 million increase, but the state opted not to codify a plan to close funding gaps between low-income and wealthy districts.

Interested candidates must file for candidacy by July 23 Three positions are open, and at least one long-standing member is not seeking re-election.