Succession plan is part of Vitti’s agenda after contract extension

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai stands above two students working at a desk, talking with one of them as both students work on an assignment.
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with second graders on the first day of school at Mark Twain School for Scholars in Detroit on Aug. 29, 2022. Vitti has many goals after his contract was extended until 2028, including potentially planning for a successor. (Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat)

A succession plan is among the goals on Nikolai Vitti’s agenda as he embarks on another four years as leader of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Vitti told BridgeDetroit he’s unsure what his plans will look like in four years and, for now, wants to focus on the district’s current priorities. But he also intends to work with the school board to develop a plan to identify a successor when the time comes for him to transition out of the role.

“Serving as superintendent in DPSCD after this latest contract extension would rest with the school board and, for me, the relationship I have with the school board and whether they are still committed to the reform work,” Vitti said about serving beyond his newly approved term. “It would also depend on if I felt the school district still needed my leadership and/if a successor was ready to go further and deeper than what I could provide the district, city, and most importantly, students and families.

“A lot can happen between now and the end of the latest contract extension,” he said.

The school board last week extended Vitti’s contract until 2028, cementing him as one of the longest serving superintendents in the district’s history. He was hired in 2017 for a five-year term, and his contract was set to expire in 2025 after the board extended it in 2020.

Vitti believes Detroit’s next superintendent should have high expectations for student achievement and a strong work ethic, be a good communicator, and understand the community. They also should be a person of color and come from the district’s leadership team, so that the reform work Vitti and his team have started can be sustained, he said.

Vitti, who is white, faced some criticisms from the community when he first became superintendent for leading a predominantly Black district. According to the DPSCD website, 82% of students are Black.

“Perhaps most importantly, they need to be strong enough to be criticized while putting children first, even when it’s not popular,” Vitti told BridgeDetroit. “They need to be politically savvy, but not political, or the work and reform will stop. The person needs to continue developing people while holding them accountable. Lastly, they must be able to retain and recruit good talent to maintain a strong team.”

Finding a successor will ultimately be the board’s decision, Vitti said, but he hopes members will trust his judgment during the hiring process. DPSCD Board President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said the undertaking would mirror the one the district used when it selected Vitti, such as embarking on a national search with an approved search firm.

Peterson-Mayberry said the board opted to extend Vitti’s contract now because spring is the time when parents and teachers begin to make plans for the next school year, and members want consistent leadership through 2028. Plus, she said, she is seeing positive results from the reform work the superintendent is doing.

“The importance of progression is tied to the ability to continue the reform and innovation work,” she said. “We know when we have changes in leadership, you lose stability.”

Vitti said student achievement and improving attendance are his top priorities in the coming years. He told BridgeDetroit via email that while it has been challenging to demonstrate improvement in each area of performance, he’s excited to continue.

“However, the next challenge is accelerating that improvement,” Vitti said. “I look forward to overcoming that next, but different challenge.”

Mario Morrow, a political analyst with a background in education, supports the board’s decision to keep Vitti in place, citing his focus on academics, safety, and fiscal responsibility. He also liked that Vitti secured a contract with the Detroit Federation of Teachers last year without major disruption.

“In his seven years of experience with DPSCD, he’s learned Detroit,” he said. “Detroit is a hard city to learn and to maneuver. People like to be welcoming, but Detroit is a hard place to crack. He’s done a good job with the way he’s maneuvered. He’s visible, he’s in the schools, and he’s focused.”

From student performance to redesigning high schools

When it comes to Vitti’s goals of student achievement and attendance, the district is beginning to make progress. During a recent school board meeting, he reported that 53% of all students are showing at least one year of growth in literacy, and 58% are improving in math. This is slightly higher than last year’s percentages of 53% and 54%, respectively, and an improvement in performance since the pandemic-impacted school years of 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Vitti also presented the literacy proficiency of the district’s current fifth graders, who were in kindergarten when the district implemented its new curriculum in 2018. Students who are never chronically absent or are continuously enrolled have proficiency percentages of 36% and 22%, respectively. Meanwhile, students who are not continuously enrolled have a lower proficiency at 15%. The overall percentage for DPSCD fifth graders is 18%.

“It’s exciting to see that if the trend continues, what eventually will happen in DPSCD with this cohort of students is that we will exceed the state average in literacy,” Vitti said at the board meeting.

This year, the average daily attendance is 83%, better than the 81% from last school year and 75% in 2021-22, according to Vitt’s report. However, chronic absenteeism remains high. So far this year, 62% of students have been chronically absent, while 66% of the district’s students were chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year.

Other goals for Vitti include “redesigning the high school experience,” by expanding college and career courses and placing more students on college campuses, in career and technical education programs, and in internships during their junior and senior years.

Morrow said besides increasing student enrollment and academic performance, he also wants Vitti to prioritize adding more certified teachers to the classroom. But Morrow, who previously served as assistant superintendent for DPSCD and superintendent for Albion Public Schools, knows the pressures of the job.

“Being a superintendent is extremely stressful,” he said. “There are lots of sleepless nights. You don’t know from one day to another what crisis you are going to have and you are going to have a crisis every single day. But I respect him and I respect his ability to work on these issues and try to solve these problems.”

Vitti said he does not plan to leave Detroit or the state when his contract expires. The educator still wants to be involved in the school community, even if it’s just attending board meetings, he said.

“I don’t see myself serving as superintendent in another district,” Vitti added. “I don’t see a superintendency that would be as challenging, fulfilling, meaningful, and personal as this one. This is my home.”

Micah Walker is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. You can reach her at mwalker@bridgedetroit.com.

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