Superintendent search

Five reasons why Nikolai Vitti might be Detroit’s next superintendent — and three reasons he might not

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Jacksonville superintendent Nikolai Vitti appeared to be fading by the end of a grueling, 12-hour interview process on Wednesday in his bid to become Detroit’s next school superintendent.

After hours of answering similar questions, over and over, from teachers and students, then labor and business leaders, then parents and community members, then finally the school board that will make the crucial decision for Detroit schools, Vitti’s voice was starting to crack but he continued to express wild enthusiasm for the job in the city he called “home.”

“Since beginning in Jacksonville [in 2012], I’ve only applied to one job and that’s this job,” he told the Detroit school board Wednesday night at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. “I feel Detroit calling me.”

Vitti, who grew up in Dearborn Heights, has worked as a teacher and administrator in Winston-Salem, N.C., New York City, Miami and Jacksonville.

“I’ve been asking myself why am I doing this everywhere other than where I’m from,” he said. “I believe that Detroit needs me and I need Detroit.”

Vitti says he’s is so committed to Detroit and its schools, that if gets the job, he will “likely” enroll his four children in the district.

“It’s all a process,” he told reporters after his school board interview. “First I have to be offered the job but I would plan to live in city limits and would likely send my children to public schools.”

That’s a bold statement from someone who spent the day talking to people about the serious challenges facing the district. He said he was “enraged” to see the conditions of the Detroit schools he visited. What he saw “shook me,” he said. “To see that our children have to go to schools where there are holes in the walls, tiles that are not replaced.” But he still said he would try to find the right Detroit schools for his kids — including two who have dyslexia. Next fall, they will be in the eighth, seventh, fifth, and third grades.

“As I always say, it’s about finding the right match for your child and that would be something that we would have to investigate and look at,” he said. “If we find the right match for our children, then they would attend public schools. If it’s not the right match for many different reasons, then obviously that’s not the decision we would make.”

But will Vitti get the job?

That depends on a lot of things including how the only other finalist — River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman — performs during a similar 12-hour trial that’s scheduled for Monday. The board has also been under heavy pressure to expand the pool to include more candidates and to consider current district superintendent Alycia Meriweather. But Vitti has several things going for him, as well as several things working against him. Here’s a breakdown:

Five reasons he might get the job:

    1. He has experience running large urban districts. The 130,000-student, 200-school Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville is more than three times the size of Detroit’s district. (It’s 65 times the size of the 2,000-student, five-school River Rouge district.) “I’ve been through the rodeo and this work is a rodeo,” he told labor and business leaders Wednesday. “I’m offering a resume of someone who has done this work and created positive change for children.” He also said he’s done this without some of the more controversial approaches that have been used across the country. “I’ve never closed a school. I’ve never converted a school to a charter. I believe the work has to be owned by traditional public education. I have turned around schools by doing the work within the district.”
    2. He appears to be politically savvy. He delivered what seemed like the right answers to politically sensitive questions. He responded to a question from a union leader by touting that he comes “from a union family.” When asked about special education, he discussed his personal struggle with dyslexia and how that led him to create a specialized school in Jacksonville for students with dyslexia as well as a special school for kids with autism. And when a parent asked him a question in Spanish, he cut off her interpreter and translated the question for the rest of the room. “I could answer in Spanish,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be perfect and I’d rather just do it in English.”
    3. He thinks Detroit can save itself — without painful disruption. Vitti vowed to bring money into the district by luring Detroit children back from charter and suburban schools. “In Jacksonville, we reduced private enrollment [in Florida’s private school voucher system] by 120% by being competitive,” he said. In Detroit, he said, “we are going to compete. I say this not to make a statement of bravado but we are going to put charter schools out of business … because we’re going to offer a better product. We’re going to begin to tell our story and begin to bring parents back to our school system.”
    4. His political experience could help Detroit maintain its independence. As a former Florida deputy chancellor for school improvement, he claimed he has the political skills to fend off intrusions from state education officials like the state’s recent threat to close two dozen schools in the city. “I can speak the language of the state … I feel like I can go to Lansing and have the credibility to talk about what’s working and what’s not.”
    5. He offered creative solutions to some of Detroit’s most intractable problems. Among them: partnering with the business and banking community to create incentives to attract Detroit teachers such as low-cost mortgages or student loan forgiveness. “We have to think out of the box,” he said.

    Three reasons he might not get the job:

    1. He’s an outsider. Despite claiming that Detroit is “home,” he has never lived in the city of Detroit (just the metro area) and has never worked in Detroit schools. That’s in contrast to Coleman, who is a Detroit Public Schools grad and a former district official and to Meriweather who has spent her life and career in the district. Detroiters have been burned in the past by outsiders who’ve come to town from elsewhere to try to make a name for themselves, only to leave the schools worse off than they were. Vitti claims he would be here to stay. He’s asked for a five-year contract and said he hopes to stay longer than that. “One of the tragedies as far as the history of public schools in Detroit has been the sustainability of leadership and constant changes. Every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leader’s work so I think if we’re going to get this right here, we have to have sustainability in leadership.”
    2. His big ideas could face serious hurdles in Detroit. Vitti spent Wednesday touting programs he implemented in Jacksonville that could be brought to Detroit that will sound great to parents and educators: Expanding technology so that more kids have access to computers; making sure every school has arts and music programs; ending the city’s severe teacher shortage by paying teachers more and creating a teacher “pipeline” that starts in high school; adding mental health programs to schools to help kids deal with trauma; creating a parent academy to train parents to be more involved in their children’s education; supporting principals with smaller ratios between the school leaders and their supervisors; and better marketing for Detroit schools to help them lure kids from charter schools and the suburbs. He even talked up a literacy program he started in Jacksonville that gives new moms books engraved with their child’s name and the year he or she will graduate from high school as way of making sure parents believe their child will graduate.

      But all of those things cost money, and Detroit’s financial problems are notorious. Vitti noted that the per pupil funding rate in Florida is lower than in Michigan and that he uses a “zero-based budgeting” approach that helps him align budgets with school priorities, but some people who met him Wednesday remained skeptical. “I’m leaving with a wait and see impression,” said Deanne Surles, whose children attend the Bates Academy and who was representing the Detroit parent group 482 Forward. “In light of the fact that we have no money in Detroit, very limited resources, how can the strategies or the plans or the methods implemented there be replicated here?” Vitti also didn’t acknowledge some other challenges. He vowed to avoid closing schools but didn’t fully explain what the district should do with the thousands of classroom seats sitting empty in school buildings that enroll just a fraction of the students they were built to serve.

    3. He has ties to a national foundation.Vitti was asked at least three times on Wednesday about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the creation of the state-run Education Achievement Authority. Vitti is participating in a Broad school leader fellowship program that has been a training ground for a new breed of district leaders who prioritize holding educators and schools accountable for boosting student performance. It has produced some controversial Detroit figures like former emergency manager Robert Bobb. Vitti says he signed up for the Broad fellowship to expand his own skills as a school leader but that doesn’t mean he supports the foundation’s agenda including its strong support of charter schools and school choice. “I’m fiercely independent. No one tells me what to do,” he said, later adding that the Detroit emergency managers who participated in the Broad fellowship “were not educators. They were managers … I’m an educator. That’s all I’ve done and Broad does not define me.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!

 

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”