The oath

New board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ of running a district plagued by serious challenges

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The seven members of the new Detroit school board were sworn in during their first meeting at Cass Tech high school.

The era of democratically elected school boards running Detroit’s schools officially returned tonight with the swearing in of the seven new board members chosen by voters in November.

“I do solemnly swear,” the board members said as they raised their right hands for the oath. “That I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this state and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of Member of the Board of Education of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, according to the best of my ability.”

Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, a Michigan Court of Appeals and Court of Claims judge who administered the oath wished the board well. “And with that you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit,” she told them.

As of 5:57 p.m., the board formally took control of the 48,659-student, 97-school district.

The board meeting that followed, which drew roughly 250 community members to the Cass Tech auditorium, was largely civil, punctuated by a few comments and cracks from the audience — a far tamer scene than the raucous community meetings that were typical during the years when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

There was some new board confusion — including a contract to run district warehouses that members voted down before acknowledging that they weren’t really sure what the consequences of the “no” vote would be.

Community members and reporters complained that the meeting’s agenda had not been posted and copies of the superintendent’s presentation were not distributed to the audience. (District officials say they’ll eventually be posted online.)

There was some controversy over the board’s announcement that it was hiring search firms to choose a permanent superintendent and to recruit new teachers.

And there were some interesting insights offered about the state of the district. Among the highlights:

The board elected its officers

The new school board president is Iris Taylor, the retired former CEO of Detroit Receiving Hospital. Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, the director of community relations at UAW-Ford will be Vice President. Community activist Misha Stallworth, who develops arts and cultural programs for the elderly, will be secretary. And Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization, will be the board’s treasurer.

The board will hire two search firms

Taylor, the new board president, said the board selected the search firms by inviting talent search companies to apply for the job. Four firms applied, Taylor said. The board met with three of them and is moving forward with Ray & Associates Inc., which specializes in educational executive leadership searches, to help choose a superintendent candidate. A second firm, T.J. Adams & Associates, will be brought on to recruit teachers. The board did not put a price tag on the contracts but, after the meeting, Taylor said the fee for Ray & Associates would be roughly the “midpoint” of the superintendent’s salary. “We are seeking partners in the community to help fund that so that it doesn’t have to come out of operations,” she said.

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather says she wants the permanent gig

“I definitely am putting my hand up,” she told reporters during a break in the meeting. “I have truly loved this city and this district my whole life and I’ve truly enjoyed what I’ve been able to do since [being named interim superintendent in] March so absolutely.”

The teacher shortage is a serious problem.

Meriweather told the board that 163 substitute teachers are currently filling the district’s 264 teacher vacancies but that 97 teaching jobs are completely empty. “That means … the staff in that building is being stretched out immensely by their preps being taken and other challenges which makes a very challenging cycle because my prep gets taken, I get tired, I take off. Now my colleague has to cover my class and students are not having regular instruction so this has to be addressed. This has to be a priority.”

Another serious problem is chronic absenteeism

A stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — 23,468 of them — miss two or more days of school a month, Meriweather said. At one school, she said, 95 percent of students are chronically absent. Meriweather did not name the school and a district spokeswoman declined to identify that school saying the district was working with the school to improve attendance. “The scary thing about that is when you miss two or more days a month, research shows you are less likely to graduate,” she said.

The district is in the black

Finance officials say they expect the district to end the year with a $48 million surplus.

The board was not given a heads up that the district plans to close a school

Taylor told reporters after the meeting that Transition Manager Steven Rhodes, who ran the district until December 31, made a deal in December to close Durfee elementary school  and lease the building to a small business incubator but that the board didn’t learn about it until January. “We’re in the process of vetting that,” Taylor said. Asked how she felt about Rhodes’ decision, she said: “Let’s just say that there are all kinds of challenges that you’ve got to respond to.”

 

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.