Detroit superintendent earns high marks in latest evaluation

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti poses for a selfie with a teacher at Priest Elementary-Middle School in Detroit.
This school year will mark Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s sixth year leading the Detroit Public Schools Community District. (Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press)

Ahead of his sixth year overseeing the Detroit school district, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti earned high marks from the school board during his annual evaluation.

School board members rated Vitti’s leadership during the 2021-22 school year “effective,” the second-highest rating possible. He has earned the same rating each year over the course of his tenure as superintendent. Board members noted that the pandemic delayed reform efforts, but added that they expect to see more improvement this school year.

Board members review Vitti’s leadership annually based on a rubric that spotlights district progress on enrollment, daily attendance and academic achievement. 

After marginal improvements over Vitti’s first few years as superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District has seen its progress in student enrollment and test scores reversed or stalled. The district has reported losing roughly 3,000 students since 2020, when it enrolled nearly 51,000.

The board finalized Vitti’s evaluation in a closed-door meeting Wednesday, which is standard for discussing employee reviews. In backing their “effective” rating, board members cited the challenges of leading the district through the pandemic.

Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, board president, said that she believes Vitti is committed to the district’s vision for reform and accomplished the board’s goals for the 2021-22 school year of establishing a virtual school, creating a 20-year plan for school facilities, and returning students and staff to in-person learning and teaching.

“Although the pandemic has stalled our reform for legitimate reasons, we are confident that we are on a path of recovery and well positioned to increase student attendance and student achievement next year as was the case prior to the pandemic,” Peterson-Mayberry said in a statement.

Board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo acknowledged there was still “a lot of work to do” in order to recover from the pandemic, but praised Vitti for his clear communication with the board as well as his management of COVID safety protocols and testing for students and staff.

“I think we still collectively as a board just have to do more work to make sure our schools are safe and our staff is supported … and I look forward to working with Dr. Vitti and the board to realize those things in this upcoming school year,” she said.

At the public segment of Wednesday’s board meeting, some commenters shared praise of Vitti’s tenure, while others called for more to be done to address student literacy and to bring more input from Detroit students into decision making.

Michelle Cline, a teacher in the district, wrote a letter in support of Vitti, thanking him for “leading the district in a positive direction”. 

“The resources he and his team have made available to our educational community have been timely and thoughtful,” Cline said.

Jamarria Hall, a district alum and the lead plaintiff in a federal “right to read” lawsuit that sought to establish a constitutional right to literacy for all Detroit students, called on the board and the district to bring youth leaders to the table when discussing ongoing reform efforts.

“We have not done a great job,” Hall said. “We have done a terrible job specifically here in Detroit. We are failing our youth ... We need to try something new.”

Helen Moore, a longtime community organizer, said, “I have not seen the progress that needs to be happening for our children.” Moore added that she didn’t believe the pandemic should be used as an “excuse” for the regression in student learning in recent years.

In 2020, the board extended Vitti’s contract through June 30, 2025, making him one of the district’s longest-serving superintendents in recent years. He currently earns $322,000. As part of the contract extension, Vitti’s salary will get a raise this year, retroactive to July, based on the percentage of union pay raises. Negotiations over union wages are ongoing.

Vitti and the board have delivered on some promises to reform the district: increased staff support, reduced teacher vacancies, increased teacher pay, and expanded academic and enrichment opportunities for students.

This past year, the influx of federal COVID relief dollars benefited the district’s short and long term goals. In May, the school board unanimously approved a $700 million facility plan, setting up major renovations and rebuilds for school buildings across the city over the next five years. The board also approved a contract with literacy tutoring nonprofit Beyond Basics to provide one-on-one and small group reading instruction to the district’s lowest performing students.

Critics, however, argue school officials haven’t done enough to improve academic achievement. Most recently, the district was scrutinized for its graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and low high school literacy levels

Meanwhile, the district’s virtual school saw higher rates of chronic absenteeism and poor academic performance compared with in-person students in the 2021-22 school year, prompting the district to tighten its selection process for the coming school year.

Looking ahead, Peterson-Mayberry said the board is expecting to see improvement in student attendance and academic achievement, particularly with literacy, as the district moves from managing the pandemic to continuing its long-term reform efforts.

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