meet the new boss

Q&A: New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti is looking for a city house, schools for his kids, and — maybe — a ‘fit’ for Alycia Meriweather

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students on the first day of school in Duval County, Florida in 2016. He was selected in 2017 to lead Detroit schools.

Detroit’s next schools superintendent plans to arrive in the city as soon as May 22 and has a long to-do list for his first few weeks.

Among priorities: Finding a house in the city, checking out schools for his four children and — possibly — finding a role for interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather in his new administration.

“I’ve been impressed with the work that she’s done as interim superintendent,” Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat in a phone interview Saturday, a day after the Detroit school board approved a five-year contract that will pay him $295,000 in his first year and up to $322,000 in later years.

“I think she has been a great ambassador for the city and the district and the children and I believe there’s a place for her on the team,” he said. “I just have to get to know her better and understand the right fit for her.”

Meriweather, who has been a popular interim superintendent, had broad support from teachers, parents and administrators when she applied for the permanent job. Her supporters were angry when she was wasn’t included among the finalists.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday. Vitti said the two have not yet met.

The school board last month chose Vitti to run the 40,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District. He is currently the superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. His last day on the job there will be May 21.

Vitti’s contract formally begins on July 1 but the Dearborn Heights native said he would arrive in Detroit early the week of May 22nd.

He’ll be bouncing back and forth between Detroit and Jacksonville as his children finish out the school year in Florida. His goal, he said, is to permanently move his family to Michigan in mid-June.

“The first couple of weeks for me will be focused on engagement with district staff, school staff — including principals and teachers — and then external engagement with parents and elected officials at the city and state level to really understand what’s working and what we need to do differently.”

Vitti said he plans to live in the city, not the suburbs, and hopes to enroll his four elementary- and middle-school-aged children in public schools. But the fact that two of them have dyslexia could complicate his school search, he said.

“It’s just a matter of finding the right match,” he said. “A couple of my children have … special needs and I want to make sure it’s the right fit at that level.”

In Jacksonville, Vitti created a special school for children with dyslexia (as well as one for kids with autism) and said he’d eventually like to do something similar in Detroit.

“Most public schools systems don’t have the kinds of services that are really about meeting dyslexic learners’ individual needs,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that is specific to Detroit.”

A school for dyslexic learners would not only serve Detroit kids, he said. He believes such a school could be a draw for families from around the region who are looking for a specialized program.

“Statistically, 1 in 5 children face dyslexia and that number can be even greater for those growing up in poverty,” Vitti said. “Their needs are not met even more because they’re growing up in poverty.”

The Detroit district has many challenges including a severe teacher shortage that will need to be addressed but Vitti said he’ll set priorities over the next few weeks based on what he learns as he gets to know the district.

“I really want to hear from people in the district,” he said. “I really look forward to getting out to schools and setting aside some time to meet with teachers and hearing directly from them about what’s working, what’s not and what we need to do differently.”

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”

 

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”