Daunting challenges

Rebuilding trust and filling classrooms: What Detroiters say new schools chief Nikolai Vitti should tackle first

PHOTO: via Twitter
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and wife Rachel Vitti read to students at a recent event in Duval County Florida.

Nikolai Vitti, the Florida school leader selected this week to run Detroit schools faces many steep challenges. Among the most daunting: He’ll be working with people who wanted someone else to get the job.

“Educators wanted Alycia Meriweather,” said Andrea Jackson, a college advisor at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, an eastside high school.

Meriweather has led the district as interim superintendent for over a year and had been the top choice of many district administrators, community leaders, and city teachers. She was eliminated from consideration last month when the board decided it wanted someone with at least three years of superintendent experience.

That decision sparked angry protests, but the board moved ahead with interviewing two finalists and Tuesday night voted to negotiate a contract with Vitti for the top job.

“Dr. Vitti should work side by side with Meriweather as Assistant Superintendent,” the district’s teachers union said in a statement about the appointment that focused first on its disappointment that she had not been considered.

“With that said,” the union’s statement continued, “we look forward to working with Dr. Vitti. The district is faced with several important issues: contract negotiations with labor unions, the return of Education Achievement Authority schools, budget stability,  retaining staff, and filling teaching vacancies.”

Indeed, when Vitti starts by July 1, he’ll face a long to-do list — and pressure from educators, students and community leaders to make his priorities match their own. Here’s what some say he should focus on:

 

Rebuilding trust

Meriweather has said she wants to stay in Detroit to keep working for its students, and the new superintendent is “going to have to come and work with her. Period,” Jackson said. “You cannot come into a city like this and be an effective leader without the voice of the community and support of the community and it would be a significant blow if he did not work side-by-side with Alycia Meriweather.”

And if Meriweather is not personally involved in the new administration, many Detroiters are urging the new superintendent to make her ideas and plans a part of his agenda.

“I have heard repeatedly from teachers and principals, current and retired, over and over again, how [this year under Meriweather] is the first time in years that people have a sense of optimism and hope in a DPS superintendent,” said Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit city councilwoman who leads a voter education organization and community action group called CitizenDetroit.

The new superintendent, she said, “should start by reaching out to teachers and acknowledging and appreciating the level of disappointment that’s coming from them and from many parents and attempt to offer an agenda that will …begin to build the level of trust that Superintendent Meriweather was able to build,”

Meriweather did not respond to a request for comment. But people who’ve followed her work say the new superintendent should be careful about coming in with his own agenda and tearing up work she’s done.

“He is going to have to rally the troops,” said Tanisha Manningham, the principal of Denby High School on Detroit’s east side, which is returning to the main Detroit district this summer. “He’s going to have to earn their trust and [that means] maybe looking at what Alycia started and maybe not totally disrupting that.”

 

Addressing the teacher shortage

The district has more than 200 vacant teaching positions — forcing schools across the city to cram far too many students in far too few classrooms.

“There are always over 45 kids in my classes and there are only 30 desks,” said Alondra Alvarez, 17, a junior at Western International High School in southwest Detroit where she said students pull up two chairs to every desk and struggle to pay attention. “It’s so loud,” she said, “and my teacher tries to have a lot of control but it’s hard.”

One way to recruit more teachers is to pay them more, said Ivy Bailey, head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which is currently negotiating a new contract with Meriweather that the new superintendent will have to execute. The average Detroit teacher made $57,793 last year, putting district salaries behind many suburban districts and charter schools.

But attracting and retaining teachers goes beyond pay, Bailey said, especially after years in which state-appointed emergency managers imposed many changes in the district.

“People are very distrusting and rightfully so,” she said. “The challenge is going to be creating trust and respect.”

She added, “We need to raise student achievement but you can’t come in here with an iron fist to get that done. … They are always trying to do something to teachers without teacher input.”

Manningham, the principal at Denby, added that the new superintendent should find ways to pay bonuses to help bring teachers’ salaries up to the level of their suburban colleagues and should look for ways to help teachers improve their skills and advance in their careers.

Jackson said even small gestures would help.

“They have to create business partnerships to send teachers out to dinner, out to lunch,” she said. “We need to be rewarded after 18 years with no raise … We need a DPS teacher appreciation program. Teachers and staff are DPS’ biggest resources and the district can’t sustain itself with a constant turnover of teachers and staff.”

 

Improving student attendance

Detroit schools have one of the highest rates of chronically absent students in the country. Meriweather told the school board earlier this year that a stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — more than 23,000 kids — missed two or more days of schools per month, making it difficult for educators to have much impact.

Manningham said absent students are the biggest challenge she faces at Denby and called on the new superintendent to look into expanding school bus transportation.

“We don’t provide yellow buses in high school and a lot of time [city buses] are running late or buses don’t show up,” she said.

 

Devising creative solutions

Manningham called on the new superintendent to use “courageous creativity” to manage schools. She said principals should be given flexibility to adapt their budgets and curricula to allow for innovations that would help their students.

She suggested, for example, that Vitti create a more streamlined system of dual credit programs that let kids earn high school and college credits at the same time. Some dual credit programs exist now in the district, but they’re limited to certain schools and not part of a citywide connection with local colleges.

 

Promoting extracurriculars

At many city schools, budget cuts have squeezed out many of the “extras” that make school engaging for students. The new superintendent should “focus on reopening the swimming pools, marching band, arts, music, dance, and home economics programs to increase career opportunities for students,” Jackson said.

These programs would “increase college scholarship opportunities for students  and decreases fights, conflicts and negative behaviors among students,” she said.

 

Adding more counselors

To help schools meet students’ needs, the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. Few if any Detroit schools achieve that level of staffing — meaning that students’ considerable needs are not always addressed.

We need a lot more counselors,” said Alvarez, the Western International student. “I go to school with 2,000 kids and there’s only three counselors to turn to … They have to fix your schedule and be there to talk with you but with 2,000 kids, counselors are stressed out themselves.”

 

Maintaining tight financial controls

The legislative maneuver last summer that created a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District freed Detroit schools from debilitating historic debt, but low enrollment continues to harm the district financially.

The new superintendent needs to have a “very clear strategy to ensure that the financial resources are in the classrooms for the purpose of educating children,” said Cockrel of CitizenDetroit.

 

Increasing enrollment

Attracting more families to the district will require a mix of all of the above, plus stronger programs that would give families a reason to trust that the district is improving. Vitti promised during his public interview to try multiple strategies to woo back families that have departed for charter and suburban schools.

Jackson called on the new superintendent to try marketing the rebranded district. He should promote “the good news of previous successful students doing well after K-12,” she said. “What’s currently happening in DPSCD and what’s to come. This will automatically increase enrollment.”

Getting there

With new contract, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
First-year teachers in Detroit could soon earn more than their peers in neighboring districts. The gray bar in this chart shows where starting salaries were in Detroit last year. The green one shows how the contract could change that.

For years, Detroit’s main school district has paid some of the lowest starting teacher salaries in the region but Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says that’s about to change.

The teachers contract approved by the Detroit school board Tuesday night doesn’t include enough of a pay increase to bring city teachers back to where they were in 2011 when a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a 10 percent pay cut.

But data compiled by the Detroit district show that the new agreement, which will boost teacher wages by more than 7 percent, would pay enough that starting teachers could soon earn more than their peers in Dearborn, Grosse Pointe and other nearby districts.

“It doesn’t begin to address the injustice [of pay cuts and frozen wages] but this is a first step,” Vitti told the board as it met at Osborn High School Tuesday.

The new contract was approved last month by members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers union. Now that the school board has signed off, the contract will go to a state financial review board for final approval.

Vitti, who hopes the higher salaries will make it easier for the district to fill more than 400 vacant teaching positions, showed the board a series of charts and graphs that illustrated some effects of the new contract.

Among the charts he flashed on a screen was one that compared starting teacher salaries in Detroit to other districts, before and after the new contract. Another slide showed how salaries would change for teachers at every level of the pay scale. A third warned that the city’s main district could be careening toward a “cliff” if it doesn’t recruit enough young teachers to replace the district’s predominantly senior educators as they begin to retire.

See the charts — and additional details about the contract — below. The last page spells out other steps Vitti says he plans to take to address the teacher shortage.

 

Detroit's future

Reading, writing and soap suds: The unusual new program that teaches kids while their parents do the wash

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Children at Detroit"s Fit and Fold laundromat now have computers to use and books to read while their parents do the wash — part of an effort to bring literacy programs to places where families are.

The days of bored kids hanging out in front of the TV at Detroit’s Fit and Fold laundromat could be over.

Now, there are books for kids to read — and take home — near the washing machines. There are computers stocked with educational software. And, a few times a week, there’s a picnic table in the parking lot where instructors read to children and work with them on their writing skills.

“This is good for everyone,” said Aaron Eley, 31, who was washing clothes inside the Fit and Fold in the city’s North End neighborhood on a recent evening as his children — Christian, 10, Ma’Kayla, 6 and Aaliyah, 2 — sat with instructors at the table outside.

“It’s good for the parents. They get to wash the clothes,” he said as his children played a matching game that involved finding words in books and writing them on index cards. “And it’s good for the kids. They get to learn some stuff.”

The books, the computers and the picnic table are part of a program called Wash and Learn that’s taking place this summer at three Detroit laundromats through an organization called Libraries Without Borders.

As educators increasingly recognize that teaching children during traditional school hours is simply not enough, Libraries Without Borders and its local partners have been experimenting with bringing literacy programs into people’s lives.  

That includes people whose lives are too complicated to allow them to attend classes or tutoring programs at libraries or community centers. And it includes the kids from low-income neighborhoods who are more likely to lose academic ground over the summer than their more affluent peers.

“The folks who would benefit most from library programs often don’t know they exist, don’t know they’re eligible for a library card or don’t have a consistent enough schedule to go to a Tuesday 6 p.m. program every week,” said Allister Chang, Libraries Without Borders’ executive director.

Chang’s organization offers programs that help children and adults with reading, computers and other skills. It has brought pop up literacy programs to places such as train stations, hospitals, parks and street corners, testing different times and locations in different cities to see what works.

Those experiments proved that some locations were problematic, Chang said.

At the park, “you’re competing against nature at all times,” Chang said. People couldn’t see the computers if it was too bright. If it rained, the park would empty out.

At train stations or on street corners, people don’t usually hang around. “Everyone’s rushing to go somewhere else,” Chang said.

But at laundromats, people have time, they have shelter and they’re often looking for something to do.

“At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” Chang said. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

So Libraries Without Borders started piloting Wash and Learn this summer, testing out child literacy programs at the Fit and Fold and two other Detroit laundromats — the Sunshine Laundry Center in Southwest Detroit and the Coinless Laundromat on the city’s west side.

In New York City, the organization piloted an adult Wash and Learn program, helping people create digital resumes and apply for jobs online at a laundromat in the Bronx.

“We’re talking about equal opportunity here,” Chang said. “After school and over summer vacations, we find in the data that wealthier families are able to send their kids to continue doing more literacy-developing activities than children from low-income families.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Stacy Lorne of Libraries Without Borders reads a book with children at the Fit and Fold laundromat in Detroit.

Some studies show that households in low-income neighborhoods have just one book for every 300 children — far less than in wealthier neighborhoods.

“Isn’t that terrifying?” Chang asked. “We know how just having access to reading materials outside of school can help make sure that you develop a vocabulary over the year and we know how much that affects graduation rates and job employability.”

Wash and Learn aims to change that, which is why books are available at the laundromats for children to take home, whether or not the instructors are present. It’s why the computers are available whenever the laundromats are open.

And when the program is in session, instructors work one-on-one or in small groups with kids, helping them with whatever they need. On a recent night, that included a one-year-old who was just learning to connect with books, older children who were practicing their writing skills and several kids who wanted to spend time on the computers.

So far, the program has been a big hit at the Fit and Fold, said Justin Johanon, who manages the laundromat.

The Fit and Fold has always had exercise equipment available for adults to use while they wait for their clothes to get clean, but there wasn’t much for kids, Johanon said.

“Their parents would plop them down and they would hang around, doing nothing,” he said.

Now, he said, kids are taking the free books and using the computers even on days when the the instructors aren’t there. “It’s awesome,” he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Wash & Learn program has been in three Detroit laundromats this summer, offering kids instruction in reading, writing and computers.

The North End neighborhood has been surrounded by dramatic change in Detroit. Less than a mile to the south is the New Center neighborhood, where developers are building expensive new condo buildings and where the new QLINE train picks up commuters to deliver them downtown.

Nearby to the north, the price of historic mansions in the Boston Edison neighborhood has been climbing.

But the blocks around the laundromat are filled with families who have struggled for years, Johanon said. Right next to the laundromat is an apartment building that’s home to many children whose parents have trouble making ends meet.

“No one in there has internet. No one has a computer,” Johanon said. “There’s a bunch of apartments, a bunch of kids, and no one in there has anything. A lot of people can’t afford even to do laundry.”

Johanon said he’s tried to let the neighborhood know that kids can come to the reading program even if their parents aren’t washing clothes.

“I just care about what’s happening in the neighborhood,” he said.

It is that enthusiasm from laundromat owners and employees that has been the best part of the program so far, said Stacy Lorne, the Wash and Learn Detroit program coordinator.

“They take such pride in this program and such excitement,” Lorne said. “They’re bringing the kids to the computers when we’re not there and they’re making sure they know how to use the technology to get the kids logged on.”

One Detroit laundromat owner gave her $150 to buy snacks for kids, she said. Another printed flyers to help spread the word.

The Wash and Learn pilot program will end later this month but Libraries Without Borders has signaled that it plans to extend and expand the program, serving kids after school and on weekends once the school year begins. Local community partners say they, too, are invested for the long haul.

Wash and Learn “was their idea but we see the benefit so we’re going to keep this here,” said Cindy Eggleton, whose Brilliant Detroit organization is the local partner at the Fit and Fold and Sunshine laundromats.

Brilliant Detroit has family centers focused on families with kids aged 0-8 in several Detroit neighborhoods including one a block from the Fit and Fold. The organization sees the laundromat program as a great way to spread the word about its other programs, including a free all-day “Kids Club,” parenting classes, financial literacy classes and a teen gardening and nutrition program, Eggleton said. “It serves as a place for us to meet neighbors and if they want to come for more, they can come to the Brilliant Detroit house.”

Eggleton notes that programs that promote early childhood literacy are especially important in Michigan now that a new state law will soon require kids who can’t pass a third-grade reading test to repeat the grade.

Libraries Without Borders is encouraged by the early results from the pilot program this summer. The number of kids who have been served so far is relatively low — more than 80 children and their parents have worked with instructors at the three Detroit laundromats. Almost 100 books have been distributed, including children’s books and books geared for young adults.

But the organization sees this pilot program as a first step to possibly someday turning laundromats into places where people know they can go for help.

“This is something we are planning to take nationally,” Chang said, noting that the group soon hopes to have Wash and Learn programs in four other cities.

It just makes sense, he said. “Laundromat workers are in the local community. They care about the local families and this is also a way for them to get more business. This laundromat has programs and computers that others don’t.”