Superintendent search

Ten things to know about Detroit superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit schools, speaks in a video in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was superintendent before coming to Detroit.

The search for Detroit’s next schools superintendent enters the next stage on Wednesday with the first of two public interviews with the finalists for the job.

The candidate on the hot seat Wednesday is Nikolai Vitti, a Dearborn Heights native who is now superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. The district is more than three times the size of the Detroit district, which now enrolls around 40,000 students.

Vitti will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Wednesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes a visit to Thirkell Elementary Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at the Breithaupt Career & Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

A second finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, will go through a similar process on Monday. Despite community pressure, the district’s current interim superintendent is not a finalist and will not be interviewed.

Before the action begins, here are ten things to know about Vitti:

  1. He grew up in Dearborn Heights, the son of Italian immigrants.
  2. He played football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, later getting graduate degrees in education at Harvard.
  3. His history as someone who has struggled with dyslexia a challenge also faced by his two sons — has led him to highlight the needs of students with learning disabilities. Those efforts earned him an award from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  4. Vitti presides over a district labeled the most dangerous in Florida but faces far fewer challenges than Detroit does.
  5. He appears to have found a middle ground in a polarized education reform landscape. On the one hand, he has invoked the language of teachers as “widgets” that came out of a seminal 2009 report that advocated for weighing student performance in teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation decisions, and he replaced 30 percent of principals early in his tenure in Duval County, saying that they were underperforming. But he has advocated for the arts and evaluating performance beyond test scores.
  6. He says he has learned a lesson that some hard-charging reformers took a while to absorb: that having a strong curriculum is as important as getting strong educators into the classroom. “This has been an evolution for me. I have traditionally put more of my eggs in the leadership-development category and in the direct support of teachers through coaching. That’s still a relevant investment,” he said in an October 2016 conversation with an education leader. “But as I’ve gone through this process and evolved as a leader and a thinker, I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket than I ever would have before.” In Duval County, Vitti rolled out EngageNY, the free curriculum that New York State developed and now makes available to other states. EngageNY is also in use in some Detroit-area schools, including in those run by the state’s Education Achievement Authority, which will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer.
  7. Vitti has sparred with the local NAACP over test score disparities between white children and children of color. And a Duval school board member asked Vitti to resign last fall in part over the achievement gap, issuing an open letter explaining why. The local newspaper urged the board to keep him, saying the idea of firing him would be a “tragic mistake.”
  8. But the racial achievement gap is lower in Duval County than in many other urban districts. And low-income and minority students as well as students with disabilities in Jacksonville perform better on a national exam compared to their peers across the country. Vitti credits to Response to Intervention, an approach to helping struggling students fill in their skills gaps, with the strong results.
  9. Vitti believes that school systems can and should give children more than what’s necessary to hit learning goals. Duval County has a voluntary summer school to keep kids busy.
  10. His wife, Rachel, an educator and advocate, invoked the fact that she’s a black woman married to Vitti, who is white, on a poster to campaign “as a straight ally” for a local human rights ordinance. “The sobering fact is that less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, I would have been arrested and jailed for displaying my human right to love a man, who shares my heart, brings me to a poignant pause,” she was quoted as saying on the poster. “Less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, my four bi-racial children would have been deemed to be illegitimate and would not have been given the protections and privileges afforded to the children of lawfully wedded parents.”

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”