Detroit schools seek contract extension with Beyond Basics to improve reading skills

Detroit school district officials are using a variety of strategies, including high-dosage tutoring programs such as Beyond Basics, to address the literacy needs of its students. (Andrea Morales / for Chalkbeat)

Detroit school officials are seeking to extend a contract next year with local tutoring nonprofit Beyond Basics to provide continued help for district students far behind in reading skills.

At a school board finance committee meeting Friday, Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Nikolai Vitti introduced a contract extension for Beyond Basics for the 2023-24 school year. The Southfield-based tutoring nonprofit would receive $3.3 million to provide one-on-one or small group literacy instruction to students at eight district schools. 

In recent years, DPSCD has used philanthropic dollars, COVID relief funding, and money from a literacy lawsuit settlement to expand Beyond Basics’ tutoring across district high schools and elementary schools. 

The Beyond Basics program aims to improve students’ reading level by two grades in an average of six weeks. Its reading instruction partially utilizes Orton-Gillingham, a multi-sensory, structured approach that tends to work for students with dyslexia, and emphasizes phonics-based instruction. The program uses paid, trained tutors to work with students during the school day.

In both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, the district reported that students who participated in Beyond Basics saw, on average, more than one-and-a-half year’s worth of reading growth.

The contract extension proposal comes as the district seeks to provide targeted intervention for students multiple grades behind reading level. 

DPSCD students performed slightly below pre-pandemic measures on M-STEP, Michigan’s standardized test during the 2021-22 school year. (M-STEP results from the 2022-23 school year are expected to be released in September.) In English, 9% of third grade students scored at or above proficiency, compared with 11.9% in 2019. 

But the district’s declines in reading proficiency also reflect broader state and national trends. The percentage of Michigan third graders a year or more behind in reading went up 20% in the 2021-22 school year, according to an annual report from Michigan State University’’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative on the number of students eligible for retention. 

Beyond Basics is one of several interventions DPSCD uses to improve literacy. The district’s literacy plan also includes hiring full-time academic interventionists, professional development on Orton-Gillingham instruction, and the district’s Let’s Read program, which connects adult volunteer tutors with early-grade students to help them improve their reading comprehension. 

Current and upcoming windfalls of cash also will help DPSCD address the literacy needs of its students. Michigan’s K-12 school aid budget for the upcoming school year allocated $94.4 million from the state’s literacy lawsuit settlement to the district. And DPSCD officials intend to use part of a philanthropic donation from billionaire MacKenzie Scott to hire 73 academic interventionists at select schools in 2023-24.

At Friday’s meeting, Vitti also introduced a $720,000 contract renewal with Brainspring to provide tutoring for virtual school students and professional development. The company has worked with the district since 2019. 

The Beyond Basics and Brainspring contracts will go before the full board on Aug. 8. 

This past school year, Beyond Basics tutored 589 students across high schools and K-8 schools, according to a district report shared at the committee meeting. That’s down from the 2021-22 school year, when roughly 620 students participated in the program. 

The program has faced some public controversy in the past year. Last July, Rachel Vitti, a longtime literacy advocate and the wife of Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, resigned as a director of Beyond Basics. Her departure followed a Chalkbeat story that reported on the district’s contract with the tutoring service

In the 2023-24 school year, Beyond Basics will work in eight schools, all of which participated in the program this past school year. The district will fund the program with its own grant funds at these schools

  • Brewer Academy
  • Bunche Preparatory Academy
  • Fisher Magnet Academy
  • Henderson Academy
  • Marion Law Academy
  • Mason Academy
  • Priest Elementary-Middle School
  • Thirkell Elementary-Middle School

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

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