honored

Five stories you should read about Denver’s DSST charter network and its CEO, Bill Kurtz

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post file
Bill Kurtz, CEO of the DSST charter school network.

Bill Kurtz, CEO of the homegrown and high-performing DSST charter school network, was inducted this week into the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ Hall of Fame.

This is hardly his – or the schools’ – first accolade. Oprah Winfrey gave DSST $1 million and Hillary Clinton’s campaign just lauded the schools for being innovative. The network has been the subject of positive press from The Denver Post to The New York Times. And U.S. News & World Report recently ranked DSST’s flagship school in the Stapleton neighborhood the No. 3 high school in Colorado.

But there’s also plenty of skepticism to go around when it comes to DSST, which runs 12 middle and high schools in Denver and plans to open several more.

Critics say DSST schools take only the most promising students, encourage those who are struggling to move on and benefit from a largesse traditional public schools can only dream about (see: Oprah). In 2015, the Post’s editorial page editor (who is clearly a fan) tackled those criticisms and concluded they were overblown.

In bestowing the recent honor upon Kurtz, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing charters, noted that DSST is expected to educate one in four of Denver’s middle and high school students within the next decade.

Here are highlights from five stories about DSST.

1. The school started with an idea from former Gov. Bill Owens and a $2.5 million pledge from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, according to a 2002 Denver Post story we’ve excerpted below. (We couldn’t find the story in online archives.)

Gov. Bill Owens had the idea for two years. Now he has the land to create the next generation of high-tech education.

The Denver School of Science and Technology will break ground next year on a weed-infested 10-acre site donated by Forest City, the developer of the future Stapleton community of 12,000 homes.

The charter school, created with $10 million in private donations, will cater specifically to girls and low-income kids. It will enroll 100 students in 2004 and eventually up to 400.

The school aims to bridge the cultural digital divide and encourage kids to pursue careers in science, math, engineering, computers and even biotechnology.

2. The first DSST opened in Stapleton in 2004. By 2012, the network had multiple schools. A report showed that its test scores — and those of other charter networks — were having a significant impact on the district’s growth and achievement scores at grades six and above.

3. In 2013, EdNews Colorado analyzed student retention at Denver’s high schools. Charter schools retained more students than traditional schools, the analysis found — and of the four charter schools that had been open since 2009, DSST in Stapleton had the lowest attrition rate.

4. In June 2015, the Denver school board approved a dramatic expansion of DSST. The charter network plans to have 22 schools by 2024-25, which would make it the largest in Colorado.

5. In July 2015, state science test scores at three DSST middle schools dropped significantly — in one case from 72 percent of students scoring proficient to just 50 percent scoring that way. But even the scores at those schools were above the district average.

One year in

A year after Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, a look back at his application shows what’s changed

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Next week will mark a full year since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, taking on one of the most daunting jobs in American education.

As leader of the state’s largest district, he faced a long list of challenges: hundreds of vacant teaching positions, deteriorating buildings, dismal test scores, a total lack of systems for finances and hiring — the legacy, Vitti says, of the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for years before his arrival.

One year later, it remains to be seen whether Vitti will be able deliver the hopeful turnaround he promised in his 27-page application. It’s far too soon to look for real signs of progress — like higher test scores — because major changes to schools like a new curriculum won’t be implemented until next school year. But enrollment is up slightly, budgets have been balanced, and teacher salaries are on the rise.

Below, we return to his application — his blueprint for the district — to mark the things that have happened, the plans that have been made, and the work still left to do.

Click on the highlighted text to compare Vitti’s words with his actions and read our coverage of his first year in the district.


Candidate File for Nikolai Vitti

DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

COMMUNITY DISTRICT

Superintendent Search

2017-18

Please accept this letter as my official application to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), I am applying for this extraordinary challenge and opportunity because of my deep and unwavering belief in urban public education and my love for my home city of Detroit. The city’s voters have demanded and received an elected School Board, The School Board’s success will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record, experience, commitment, strength, and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future with the Board,

I offer the Board a child-centric and seemingly outside, objective perspective of how we can build the district into the best urban school district in the nation, while simultaneously doing that work with the empathy and sensitivities of a Detroiter. Growing up in Metro Detroit, my family and I have directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism, and foreclosures. My immediate and extended family represents the spirit and diversity of Detroit as we are a collection of ethnic Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Arab-Americans. From delivering the Detroit Free Press at 5 a.m. or parking cars on Michigan Avenue for the Tigers’ game to supplement our family’s income, to my grandmother working for Ford as an hourly cashier or my grandparents and father working in the factory at the River Rouge plant, to my mother earning her GED after dropping out of high school as a teenage mother and working to this day as a hairdresser, to my father eventually graduating from Wayne State University or my family running a pizzeria, Detroit is in my blood and I am eager to return home and serve the city.

An unbridled passion and drive to catch up to my peers, along with the work ethic and pride of my family, led me to focus my college experience exclusively on reading, studying, and writing to better understand myself and the world. Despite struggling through my K-12 experience due to undiagnosed dyslexia and a family home structure that did not always feel comfortable advocating for academic excellence, I quickly realized that my college education was a vehicle to my own self-actualization and empowerment. It was there where I also reunited with my father. However, empowerment did not mean more for myself, it meant building my capacity and confidence to empower others. After considering law, medicine, and even film, I decided that the greatest vehicle for social justice and transformation, at scale, was public education. I began that work as a teacher and eventually as a superintendent to assume greater responsibility and ownership for the learning environments that all of our children deserve.

Traditional public education is at a perceived crisis, whether that crisis is truly legitimate or exaggerated for political and ideological reasons, we must conduct our work with greater strategy, efficiency, and transparency in order to produce stronger outcomes. I offer the Board and community an expansive track record of success with transforming some of the most challenged learning environments at the classroom, school, district, and state levels that mirror those in Detroit. This work has occurred as a practitioner in the Bronx, Miami, in several urban communities in Florida, and most recently in Jacksonville, FL. I have only served in traditional public schools because of my deep belief that this is where our work is most important. The only way our nation can meet its professed ethos of equal opportunity is to ensure a strong public education system is ever present. Detroit can only restore its greatness with a strong public school system.

My initial contract in Jacksonville was from November, 2012 to June, 2016. It was renewed early on a 7-0 School Board vote for a three year extension. I am in the first year of that three year extension. I admit that our work in Jacksonville is incomplete but at the same time I can confidently state that I will leave the district in a better place than I assumed it four years ago. This is evidenced through historic achievement levels and improvement in graduation rates, the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), district grade, and post-secondary readiness among several other indicators.

Four years ago Duval County was seven percentage points from the state average, today it is nearly one percentage point away with an improvement of over Ti percentage points. Today our African-American graduation rate leads all large urban school districts in Florida, our achievement gap between White and African-American students is the narrowest in reading, math, and Algebra among the largest districts in Florida and one of the narrowest among the largest districts in the nation according to NAEP. We have increased post-secondary college readiness in reading by 11 percentage points from 73% to 84%, and a 17 percentage points in math from 55% to 72%. African-American post-secondary readiness for reading has improved from 67% to 81%, and in mathematics from 39% to 66% over the past four years. We have been a “B” district for consecutive years for the first time in years. The performance of nearly all groups of students have improved in the vast majority state assessments after the second year of new standards, and performance is due to improve again this year based on mid-year internal assessments.

I would leave Duval County with an infrastructure that has been solidified in the areas of technology, blended learning, budget alignment to a Strategic Plan, art and music programming, data systems, curriculum selection and adoption for the new standards, school programming with an emphasis on STEM, accelerated courses, and Career Academies, leadership development at the school and district level, alternative and over-age schools, schools avoiding state sanction, redesign of low enrolled and struggling schools, and the concentration of stronger leaders and teachers in struggling schools.

I apply for this position knowing that I am returning home and that the School Board and community need leadership sustainability. I have been asked to apply to several superintendent positions, charter networks, and private companies over the years; Jacksonville was the only district in which I applied for my first superintendency and I am now only applying for this opportunity. I fully embrace and would only request a long-term commitment with the School Board to begin the problem solving process to improve the school district.

The School Board is seeking a leader with the capacity, confidence, and experience to work with the State and local communities to turnaround lower performing schools. I have demonstrated this ability as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, state administrator, and superintendent in several large urban school districts throughout the country. As a cabinet member who served three National Superintendents of the Year and as an essential member of a district team that won the Broad Prize in Educational Excellence while being highlighted for turnaround work by the USDOE and FLDOE, I will be able to provide the State of Michigan with the assurance that we can be trusted to improve student achievement and ensure financial transparency. We will regain the right to govern our school district independently.

I envision a school district where all students are college ready or well prepared for high level employment. This will occur because our students will learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. We will support and develop our current and future leaders and teachers, and support them with the right tools, curriculum and data systems, and wraparound services to address our students’ socioemotional challenges. Our students will experience the expansion and exposure of an arts education while gaining a greater appreciation for their culture and community. We will expand business partnerships for internships, while building the capacity of our parents and respecting their voice. Our students will be safe and learn through their mistakes by ensuring a progressive discipline model. We will restore the confidence of parents and their children who will return from charter and private schools.

The resurgence of Detroit is underway. As a School Board and superintendent team we will accelerate that progress and ensure its success.

Read Vitti’s full application, including his resume and references, in the document below. 

making their case

As pink slips go out to Detroit principals and school leaders, some are pleading their case to the school board

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

A handful of Detroit school administrators filed into a quiet conference room, ready to fight for their jobs. They had twenty minutes to make their case. Most carried a written version of the appeal they wanted to make to the school board.

The end of the school year is approaching and 16 district administrators just learned that they might not be coming back next year.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is about to enter his second year as the district’s leader, issued “non-renewal notices,” to four school principals and 12 central office administrators.

But at the district’s Fisher Building headquarters on Tuesday, the people on the chopping block were all given a chance to appeal. Seven of them took the superintendent up on his offer to defend their work, with several scheduled for hearings Tuesday and others set for Wednesday.

The process, though likely difficult for the 16 people on the chopping block, was more measured than the one used in the past.

Previously, when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers, “non-renewals” went out every year to every non-union employee in the district — hundreds of people — forcing them to reapply for their jobs.

Emergency managers “just said, non-renew everybody and we’ll figure out the budget,” said Deborah Louis-Ake, president of the Detroit Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, a union representing school administrators. She was in the conference room on Tuesday morning, advocating for a financial administrator who appealed his case to the school board. Nonetheless, she said the process was more predictable this year. “I think these are planned non-renewals,” she said.

Last year, as the district was transitioning to Vitti from an interim superintendent, non-renewals went out to central office staff. Vitti ended up cutting dozens of jobs, and moving certified educators back into classrooms to help alleviate the district’s teacher shortage. (Here’s how the district payroll changed between June and October).

Changes to this year’s process are part of a broader effort to reestablish stability in the district after more than seven years of five different emergency managers, Vitti said.

Even for high-performing employees, it was “demoralizing to get a non-renewal letter,” Vitti told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “It created instability.”

Touch-and-go job security, heaped on top of relatively low pay, made it hard for the district to attract strong administrators, according to Louis-Ake.

Once the seven administrators have had a chance to plead their case, the board will make final personnel decisions at a meeting on May 21, Vitti said.

Among those facing ousters are four principals who were singled out for failings such as poor communication with parents or bungled finances. Not all will lose their place in the district entirely.

Allan Cosma, principal of Ludington Magnet Middle and Honors School, could be demoted to assistant principal, a position that Vitti says would better suit his skills. Vitti first proposed firing Cosma in April after an audit turned up a financial issue. After a large group of supporters fought for him at a school board meeting, the board voted to place him on a 30-day unpaid leave.

The other 15 administrators were not identified by the district. Their appeal hearings were closed to the public, standard procedure for discussions of individual employees’ job performance. Board member LaMar Lemmons confirmed that Cosma was again appealing to the board, noting that the situation had been previously reported.

No principals are being fired this year because of low test scores, but Vitti says that’s likely to change next year. By then, school leaders will be expected to improve on this year’s academic performance, Vitti said. He is using tools such as “data chats” where principals analyze test scores and attendance rates to help spread leadership skills throughout the district.

By next year, principals whose performance is found lacking will know what to expect, said Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman.

“There’s no emergency manager that’s going to come in here in April and hand out non-renewals based on something that no one understands,” she said. “It’s a sign of stability.”