The new boss

Detroit’s new schools chief will be Jacksonville, Florida, superintendent Nikolai Vitti

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

Detroit schools will soon have a new leader: Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Vitti was selected Tuesday night by a united school board that voted unanimously to hire the Dearborn Heights native in hopes that his experience running the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, will help him end Detroit’s enrollment decline and rock-bottom test scores and lead the district toward a better future.

The vote to begin contract negotiations with Vitti — the first major decision by the city’s newly elected school board — was almost not unanimous. Member LaMar Lemmons initially voted against Vitti before switching his choice in the interest of allowing the new superintendent to know he has the full support of the board.

“I believe that both candidates are highly qualified. They both could lead our district,” Lemmons said of Vitti and the other finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman.

But he noted that Vitti sometimes struggled in his current job in Duval County because some school board members did not support him — and Lemmons said he didn’t want that to happen in Detroit.

“Whoever my initial pick is, if it’s not the will of the majority, I want it known that I’m changing my vote to be with the majority,” Lemmons said. “I think we need to move with consensus so the new superintendent has the entire support of this body.”

In the vote Tuesday night in the auditorium of the Douglass Academy for Young Men, Vitti beat out Coleman, a Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools graduate. He’ll take over the district officially on July 1, but the board discussed asking him to start sooner to ensure a smooth transition.

Vitti will be taking the reins from Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather.

Meriweather had applied for the permanent position and enjoyed strong community and educator support but was eliminated from consideration last month by board members who decided they wanted a superintendent with at least three years of experience leading a school district.

The city teachers union issued a statement Tuesday night urging Vitti to keep Meriweather involved.

“It is our hope that Meriweather remain an important member of the new superintendent’s executive team,” the union said in a statement.

The search process has been controversial from the start and the vote won’t end the controversy. Activist Robert Davis, whose court motion last week forced the board to cancel an earlier meeting to discuss the candidates due to a violation of the state Open Meetings Act, said he planned to file a motion as early as Wednesday to challenge the legitimacy of Vitti’s selection. He said there were numerous violations of the Open Meeting Act and other rules during the search process.

Member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who led the board’s search committee, said the process has been difficult.

“It has been very, very strenuous, very time-consuming,” she said of a process that involved daylong interviews with two finalists, visits to their districts, and heightened emotions in a politically charged environment. “It is not an easy decision. We have two good candidates and I think the consensus is not that one is better than the other. The question is: Which one is the best for our district at this time to get to where we said we want to be?”

Vitti, who said he is “likely” to enroll his four children in public schools in Detroit, currently runs a district much larger than the 97-school, 40,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District. He’s also worked in Miami, New York City, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Board members who visited his district said they were impressed with several of the schools they visited in Duval County including a school that had dramatically improved student performance after years of receiving F grades from the state of Florida. They also noted a school that specialized in visual arts, one that served children with dyslexia, and a school for overaged students.

The board praised Vitti’s track record as someone who has turned around schools without shutting them down. Members highlighted his work engaging parents and heralded his personal story of overcoming a learning disability to eventually earn graduate degrees from Harvard University.

Vitti will  be introducing himself to Detroiters over the next few months. To get to know him, check out our list of 10 things to know about him as well as the pros and cons that were working for and against him as he applied for the job.

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.