Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit schools boss — and (another) panic over closing threats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Detroit school board discusses superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti before his selection on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

The biggest news in Detroit schools this week was the selection of a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti — at least until the city was swept by rumors of looming school closures.

Rumors began circulating Thursday after the state superintendent told reporters that the Detroit district planned to voluntarily shutter “some” of the 24 schools that had been targeted by the state earlier this year for forced closure. The news — broadcast by local papers including one that issued a news alert —  set off a panic and fury from parents and even school leaders. Two school board members expressed alarm when contacted by Chalkbeat, saying they’d heard nothing about closures. The matter didn’t die down until several hours later when the district issued a denial.

“You may have read recent news reports that indicated Detroit Public Schools Community District planned to close schools. Currently, the district is only relocating two programs, Durfee and Turning Point Academy, to other buildings for the 2017-18 school year.”

— Detroit Public Schools Community District statement

The episode illustrated just how on edge Detroit is when it comes to its schools — hardly an easy landscape for Vitti to enter. Read on for more about Vitti’s selection, the steep challenges he faces, and the rest of the week’s education news.

Also, we’re continuing to tell the individual stories of Detroit schools including this week’s story from a student who says her charter school promised art classes and college tours — then didn’t deliver. If you have a story to tell about Detroit schools or know someone who does, please let us know.

 

The new boss

  • The school board’s unanimous vote to select Vitti, the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, came after one member changed his no to a yes to show Vitti that he has the full support of the board.
  • The vote drew jeers from a heckler who was angry that the board had chosen a white man to lead the primarily African American school district. “You all know we’re black, right?” she shouted.
  • The selection of a white man for the job is bound to concern some parents in a city where most kids are poor and nonwhite, a Bridge Magazine reporter said during a radio broadcast. “There are parents who very understandably want someone in the role who understands the achievement gap,” she said. But she noted that Vitti’s wife his black and so are his four children. “He is like a lot of the parents in Detroit Public Schools in that he has the achievement gap living in his home,” she said.
  • The board now plans to negotiate a contract with Vitti — though those talks are on hold until at least Tuesday due to a legal challenge from activist who says the search process violated the law.
  • If Vitti formally accept the job, he’ll have a lot of work to do. Among things that Detroiters and educators say should be at the top of his list is addressing the disappointment of the community members who wanted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather to get the job.
  • Once the news broke of Vitti’s selection, school board members in Duval County praised his track record in the Florida district. “I believe he can be very successful in Detroit,” one board member said. “I frankly think success in Detroit will really put him on a national stage. I’m excited about this opportunity for him and his career.”
  • A Detroit News columnist called him a “game changer,” adding: “He needs to be. Because it’s now or never” for Detroit schools.
  • Vitti beat out River Rouge superintendent Derrick Coleman who called Vitti a “great hire,” adding that he felt “almost a sense of relief” that he didn’t get the job. “It would have been extremely difficult to leave my current position,” he said.

 

In other Detroit news

  • The state superintendent later clarified his panic-creating remarks about Detroit school closings saying the Detroit district may need to close schools in the future “based on their enrollment numbers.” The only changes planned this year, the district says, are at Durfee Elementary-Middle school, which will be moved into nearby Central High School. The Turning Point Academy will be moving to another nearby building.
  • A town hall meeting was held Thursday night to give parents a chance to air their concerns about school closures in Detroit.
  • A Free Press columnist urged city philanthropic leaders to “drop the mother of all philanthropic bombs on the city’s schools,” but the head of a major local foundation said fixing city schools will take more than cash. “If we knew that money was the solution, we would have done exactly that.”
  • The same columnist earlier in the week renewed the call for a citywide education commission that would oversee all Detroit schools. “Who’s minding the entire store, perusing the landscape, making sure that schools  — public, private and parochial — are open where families need them and work successfully for all children?” she asked.
  • One Detroit student —  who says she and her siblings have attended 22 Detroit schools — says her charter school broke promises when it failed to provide art classes and college tours.
  • A Detroit charter school is hoping new legislation that got a hearing in Lansing this week will help preserve the school’s diversity. (Read this to learn more about the challenges faced by Detroit charter schools seeking diversity).
  • A coalition of Detroit organizations looking to expand early childhood education is inviting Detroiters to find or host a “listening session” this month or next — especially on April 27, Detroit Day of the Young Child — as part of a yearlong planning process to make Detroit a “kid-friendly city” by 2027.
  • An Ann Arbor couple is helping to send Detroit high school students to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.
  • A Detroit charter school is spending $6 million on a new addition including space for new classrooms as well as broadcast and performing art studios.
  • More than 150 Detroit high school students will gather with teachers next weekend to prepare for Advanced Placement exams.

Across the state

In other news

More from Chalkbeat

Week In Review

Week in review: A ‘poor choice of words’ from the state schools boss, Grosse Pointe considers lightening up

The state superintendent was under fire this week after telling a TV interviewer that school choice had taken the state “backwards.” It was a comment he later called a “poor choice of words.”

Scroll down for more on that story and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. That includes insight into why Grosse Pointe is reviewing its tough enforcement of its residency rules and the latest on Detroit’s new schools boss, Nikolai Vitti. He was the subject of a major Chalkbeat story this week that looked at his plan to bring order to a district that he says lacked basic financial and academic systems.

Also, if you weren’t able to attend the forum featuring Vitti and the Citizens Research Council this week, you can watch the full video here. If you’re still looking for more, please tune in to American Black Journal on Sunday when I’ll be talking about Detroit schools.

Oh, and we have some exciting news: We’re hiring! If you know any thoughtful reporters who’d be interested in covering one of the most important stories in American education, please tell them to get in touch. Thanks for reading!

The Detroit schools boss

The state schools boss

  • Michigan schools boss Brian Whiston stressed in his clarification about his controversial school choice remarks that he’s a strong supporter of choice but believes giving parents options can’t be the only fix for schools.
  • Whiston’s comments come as advocates lament declining test scores across the state. Among them: a news publisher who blasts Lansing for fiddling while public schools “go to hell” and an advocate who urged Michigan parents to stop telling themselves that their child’s school is probably fine. “In fact,” she writes, “Michigan is one of only five states that has declined in actual performance in fourth-grade reading since 2003 for all students.”
  • Still, the head of the state board of education says it’s “irresponsible” to suggest that Michigan schools are in crisis.
  • The school choice supporters who were miffed by Whiston’s comments are also still steamed about a New York Times Magazine piece on charter schools last week. One critic said the article failed to tell the whole story about the challenges to education in Highland Park and Detroit. A news site that strongly supports choice scrutinized the way the story characterized the number of for-profit charter schools in Michigan.

In Detroit and across its borders

  • Grosse Pointe schools officials are reviewing their aggressive approach to enforcing residency rules that keep Detroiters and other non-residents out of the district’s schools. In the past three years, the district has spent $74,528 on investigations and legal fees related to out-of-district students and has made all parents jump through burdensome hoops to prove they live in the district.
  • A Detroit teacher (and Chalkbeat reader advisory board member) set out to talk with other educators to “build a more nuanced narrative of Detroit schools.” Among teachers he featured is Janine Scott who the writer discovered when she appeared last spring in a Chalkbeat/Skillman Foundation “Story Booth.” (If you’re a parent, educator or student who wants to be featured in a future Story Booth, please let us know).
  • A principal who moved a Detroit charter school from the 8th percentile on state rankings to the 51st explains how it’s done.
  • Detroit’s main district plans to spend up to $57,000 to establish Parent Teacher Associations in all of its 106 schools.
  • The head of a Detroit high school engineering program explains how it aims to change lives.
  • An organization that places young adults in Detroit schools to provide support got a major gift from Quicken Loans that will help it expand.
  • The construction boom has highlighted the shortcomings of the city school system.
  • Wayne State University’s leaders pushed back against an article last week that highlighted a dramatic decline in African American enrollment — particularly graduates of Detroit schools.

In other news

Week In Review

Week in review: Charter wars ramp up as kids return to school

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Not all district schools faced challenges on the first day. Students at Detroit's Chrysler elementary school walked the red carpet the school set up for the first day of school.

This week not only marked the start of the new school year in Detroit. It also brought an escalation of the city’s ongoing charter school wars.

Charter supporters were fuming over a New York Times Magazine takedown that asserted “children lost” when Michigan “gambled on charter schools.”

And as one charter school leader knocked Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s new superintendent, for refusing to work collaboratively with the city’s privately managed schools, Vitti created a panic among supporters of a new charter that wants to buy a former district building.

Scroll down for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Also, please mark your calendars for this event Wednesday night where I’ll be joining Vitti and the Citizens Research Council for a salon-style dialogue about Detroit schools.

 

Charter wars

  • Vitti’s decision to block a charter school from buying the former Joyce Elementary School building could mean it remains vacant while the district loses the $75,000 it stood to make from the sale.
  • One charter leader challenged Vitti with an op/ed calling for an end to the “charter school versus non-charter school rhetoric.”
  • The 7,000-word Times Magazine story explores the financial and academic challenges of a Highland Park charter school and blames the state’s free market charter school laws.
  • The state’s charter school association issued a rebuttal and blasted the author. Leaders of a free-market think tank wrote that the story contains “major errors.”
  • The rebuttal cites a study that finds that Detroit’s charter school students slightly outperform their district counterparts. That study is often cited by both sides of the debate. Read it here.  
  • Or read this story about the role U.S Education Secretary Betsy DeVos played in shaping the state’s charter school laws and the resulting educational conditions in Detroit.
  • DeVos was the subject this week  of a story on public radio’s This American Life. The piece looked at her volunteer work at a public school in Grand Rapids to provide a window into her views on education. (I’ve done some work on This American Life too. Check it out).
  • A day after blasting the Times story, the state charter school association highlighted its analysis that found that nine of the state’s highest performing schools on the 2017 M-STEP were charters. [Friday, the association sent an update alerting reporters that the initial analysis had been wrong. In fact, just the four highest-performing schools had been charters]. 
  • The number of charter schools in Michigan is down this year for the first time in the 23-year history of the state’s charter school law.

Back to school

  • As Detroit kids returned to class this week, Vitti said he was disappointed that 250 teaching positions in the district remained unfilled. He saw the effects of that shortage as he toured schools Tuesday.
  • Many of the vacancies were left by teachers who worked for the state-run recovery district until its dissolution in June. Teachers reported they weren’t given credit for their years of experience. That meant steep pay cuts.
  • If the 55,000 kids who’ve signed up to attend schools in the main district actually enroll, it would represent the first significant increase in years. Just 36,000 kids were in class Tuesday but Vitti said first-day attendance rates are typically around 70 percent.
  • Among kids who’ve enrolled in district schools: Vitti’s four children.
  • In a back-to-school Q&A that covered a number of issues, Vitti said the district could eventually decide to close some schools but has no plans to do so this year.
  • Absences are not just high on the first day of school. A News columnist notes that 60 percent of district students were chronically absent in a recent year.
  • The chronic absence rate across the state was 30 percent.
  • The Free Press put together a list of ten things to know about the new school year.
  • The state superintendent — who recorded this “welcome back message” for students — says he plans to make Michigan a top ten state by 2026.

 

State of our schools

  • A top state lawmaker is pushing for an A-F grading system for schools.
  • State lawmakers are reviewing test options as they consider replacing the M-STEP in the 2018-19 school year.
  • Michigan could be holding back nearly half of its third graders by 2020.
  • A website has created a list of the state’s top elementary schools.
  • The Detroit News has tapped a veteran education reformer to curate a series of commentaries about education that will be published throughout the school year.
  • The first piece in the News’ series looks at the state’s education crisis by the numbers.
  • A Free Press columnist expresses alarm at low reading scores across the state and writes that we’re no closer to a solution today “than we were four, eight or 20 years ago.”

In other news

  • Here’s the story of how a California-based nonprofit law firm catapulted seven Detroit schoolchildren into a civil rights suit in federal court.
  • The number of Detroit graduates enrolling at Wayne State University has plummeted over the last decade.
  • A Detroit teacher has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the main district and the city’s mayor saying she was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on tainted water in her school.
  • A former DPS principal is on her way to prison.