Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit superintendent — and fights over funding, vouchers and vaccines

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

While the nation’s education world was focused this week on Betsy DeVos, proposed school budget cuts and the fight over who benefits from vouchers, the spotlight in Detroit was trained on Nikolai Vitti. The new superintendent got his final approval from the city Financial Review Commission on Monday and spent his first day Tuesday meeting with teachers and administrators about problems facing the district. Among his early conclusions: Detroit teachers need a raise.

“We have to become more competitive with pay. I don’t think that’s going to be done immediately, at scale, but it’s something that I will be looking closely at in concert with the school board to look at what does our budget look like right now? Where are some opportunities to do things differently? To increase pay?”

— Nikolai Vitti, superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

Read on for more about Vitti and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, check out the play that a group of Detroit student activists wrote and performed to help explain the recent political turmoil in Detroit education.

All about Vitti

  • The Detroit Financial Review Commission, which has authority over all major district spending, gave Vitti the official green light to take over the district on Monday. The vote came despite commissioners’ concerns about the length of Vitti’s five-year contract and whether the district could afford his nearly $300,000 annual salary.
  • On his first day on the job, Vitti got an earful about the need for the district to fill teacher vacancies.
  • One challenge to doing that, he said, is low teacher salaries in the district and the fact that it’s harder to teach in the city than the suburbs. “We can’t just talk about the value that we have with teachers. We have to pay them accordingly,” he said.
  • Vitti made those comments at a teacher job fair where 200 applicants applied for open district jobs. That’s a good start but the district is currently facing a 263-teacher shortage — and that’s without considering new hires that will be needed to fill vacancies created by retirements and by the expected departure of teachers from schools in the state reform district. The Education Achievement Authority schools are returning to the main district this summer.
  • As Vitti worked the room at the job fair, he was accompanied by Alycia Meriweather. The former interim superintendent is now a senior advisor to Vitti but says she and Vitti are “discussing” a permanent role for her.
  • In his first few days, Vitti visited several schools including MLK High School, Golightly Education Center and the Bates Academy
  • As Vitti starts his new job, the Detroit News notes several forces — including the city teachers union — could block his path to success. But a News columnist and radio host writes that Detroiters need to put their trust in Vitti as he “takes the reins of one of the most publicly distrusted and vilified institutions in the city.”
  • As Vitti prepared to leave his previous job running the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, a Florida columnist recalled Vitti’s frenetic “non-stop” pace in that job.
  • In Jacksonville, Vitti was known as a “reformer who produces quick results,” the Detroit News writes in a story that notes Vitti’s rapid pace of change generated some tension with teachers and staff. The paper also reports that Vitti used tens of millions of dollars he attracted in philanthropy to recruit teachers to the Florida district.

In other Detroit news

  • These Detroit student activists wrote a play about recent political turmoil in Detroit schools. Watch it here.
  • A “family literacy” program at a school in southwest Detroit teaches immigrant parents to speak and read English in the same building where their children are learning. The program has dramatically reduced student absences.
  • Activists are fighting to save the Detroit district’s award-winning lunch program.
  • A Detroit mom says her son is facing expulsion after helping a student who was choked by a teacher. Video of the fight shows the teacher pushing the student.
  • Today is the deadline to nominate a Detroit teacher for the Detroit Goodfellows’ annual Teacher of the Year Contest. Students in grades 3-8 can nominate their favorite teacher.
  • Here’s the story of the events that almost led to a unified effort to help Detroit schools — almost.
  • These Detroit students mix day jobs with school.

Across the state

  • The head of Wayne County schools says the state’s current school funding system “simply no longer works for our students, regardless of where they attend school.”
  • A bill that would let charter schools give enrollment preference to low-income students has advanced in the state house.
  • The state’s lieutenant governor says he personally reached out to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about his concerns that the state’s plan to comply with new federal school accountability rules will shortchange children with disabilities.
  • Lawmakers in the House and Senate forged ahead with bills to cut new teachers out of pensions and switch them to a 401(k)-type plan. Legislative experts say making newly hired teachers ineligible for a pension would cost the state $465 million more a year in the first five years. The Free Press says the proposal doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but the Republican House Speaker called it the “best way forward.”
  • A House panel is considering legislation that would allow parents to enroll unvaccinated children in school without signing a waiver. Here’s what’s at stake in the debate and a database that lets parents look up the vaccination rate in their children’s school.
  • About 61.5 percent of graduates from Michigan public high schools in 2016 were enrolled in college within six months of graduation, according to state data. Look up the college-going rates at individual high schools here. Here’s a list of the 53 schools with the highest college-going rate in the state.
  • A GOP lawmaker makes the case for why the state should allow school districts to start the school year before Labor Day.
  • A court hearing on the legality of $2.5 million included in the state budget to reimburse nonpublic schools for health and safety mandates was canceled. The appeals court hearing the case agreed to hear from several parties who believe they were wrongly denied the right to join the case as defendants.
  • A Detroit News columnist highlights an Indiana student who received a voucher to contrast Michigan laws that bar public funds for private schools.
  • This tiny Michigan school district has been in turmoil.
  • The East Detroit school district has changed its name.
  • The Detroit News named 24 local seniors to the paper’s list of “outstanding graduates.”
  • A local high school gym was closed for bedbugs.

 

Detroit week in review

Week in review: The target on the back of the state board of education

State lawmakers this week began a push to eliminate the state board of education and replace it with an appointed superintendent. But before anyone starts writing the board’s obituary, note that the controversial effort would require approval from two-thirds of the legislature and voters in a statewide voter referendum.

Detroit schools, meanwhile, continue to struggle with hiring enough teachers to fill classrooms. The main district has taken the unusual step of putting some counselors and assistant principals in classrooms. Leaders hope the short-term measure won’t interfere with meeting the district’s  ambitious goals.

Read on for more on these stories and the rest of the week’s school news. Also, mark your calendar for the city’s first State of the Schools address, which will be held on October 25. Seats are available for people who want to attend in person. For those who can’t make it, we will be carrying it live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

In the district

Across the state

  • The proposal to get rid of an elected state school board won praise from one editor but got a mixed response from lawmakers during a hearing this week. Eliminating the board, which one lawmaker called “irrelevant,” would require amending the state Constitution.
  • A senate committee has approved a bill that would allow charter schools to get a cut of tax increases that have traditionally benefitted district schools.
  • Trained college grads who give high school students advice about getting into college are relieving pressure on school counselors.
  • A federal court will now consider the legal case filed by a state teachers union against a right-wing spy. Read the union’s complaint here.
  • One educational leader called on the state to develop a way to recruit and retain 100,000 qualified teachers who could serve low-income children in cities and rural communities.
  • A state commission has ruled that a union cannot force the firing of a public school teacher who resigned from the union and stopped paying dues.
  • Career and technical education is on the rise in Michigan — but many students who enroll in those programs don’t complete them.
  • A new survey shows Michigan voters support their local school districts — but are less sure about the quality of instruction across the state.
  • A suburban mom says her son got 8 years of English as a Second Language instruction even though he’s a native English-speaker.

Week In Review

Week In Review: Count Day pizza, ‘Burger King’ money, and a teachers union spy

Students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School were treated to smoothies and popcorn on Count Day, courtesy of the Eastern Market and the district's office of school nutrition. The school also raffled prizes including a special lunch with the school's principal.

The slushies, ice cream, and raffle prizes that schools across the state used this week to lure students to school on Count Day are the result of a state funding system that pays schools primarily based on the number of students who are enrolled on the first Wednesday of October. The state’s had that system for more than 20 years but it’s worth asking: Is there a better way?

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says maybe — he’s just not sure what that would be. One thing he is sure of: Struggling schools need to be discerning when they’re approached by community groups with offers of help. When he visited schools this year that were threatened with closure, he said, he saw schools in such “dire shape,” they had taken “any help they could get.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the right kind.

Also this week, Chalkbeat checked in with the dynamic Central High School teacher we wrote about in June who uses music to teach students about African-American history. He had intended to return to his classroom this year — but the cost was just too high.

Scroll down for more on these stories, plus the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, don’t forget to tell talented journalists you know that Chalkbeat Detroit is hiring! We’re looking forward to expanding our coverage of early childhood education, special education, and other issues as we grow our staff in Detroit. Thanks for reading!

 

Count Day

  • Every kid who showed up in class on Wednesday was worth thousands of dollars to his or her school. Each child this year brings his or her school between $7,631 and $15,676, depending on historic funding levels. (Michigan school funding is based 90 percent on fall Count Day enrollment and 10 percent on enrollment in February).
  • The main Detroit district, which started fresh as the new Detroit Public Schools Community District last year, gets $7,670 per student. It had 48,511 students in class on Wednesday and expects its total official enrollment to rise above 50,000 as it submits paperwork to get credit for enrolled students who were absent Wednesday.
  • The district is one of 16 in the state that have lost more than half of their enrollment in the last decade.
  • Another district shares how it nearly doubled the number of students it serves in the last 10 years.
  • Michigan is one of 19 states that use attendance on one or two days to determine school funding levels for the year. “It’s unfortunate” that schools devote resources to “pizza parties, fairs, festivals, anything to get kids excited about coming to school,” the state superintendent said. But other counting methods are also problematic.
  • Not all the prizes schools handed out on Count Day were just for fun. A local union donated 50,000 child ID kits that were distributed to Detroit students on Count Day. The kits give parents tools they can use if their child goes missing.

Staffing up

  • Music teacher Quincy Stewart had been determined to stay with his students — until he learned he’d have to take a $30,000 pay cut. “People in the central office are making $200,000, $160,000 and they’re paying us, seasoned teachers, $38,000?” he said. “I’m in my 50s! That’s Burger King money!”
  • The teacher shortage that’s left Stewart’s classroom empty (and the students at Central without access to music class) also affects charter schools.. One city parent wrote says her daughter fell behind at a top charter school last year when a substitute filled in for the certified teacher.
  • As Detroit works to raise starting teacher salaries, a new study offers some insights: Young people choose teaching more when the pay is better.
  • Last-minute talks have avoided a janitor strike in Detroit schools — for now. The janitors are employed by a private cleaning company.
  • A state teachers union says its offices were infiltrated this summer by a right-wing activist determined to dig up dirt on the organization. A Wayne County judge issued an order barring the spy from publishing information she obtained during her time posing as a college intern.
  • Another state teachers union has a new video highlighting the determination of early career educators.

Improving schools

  • The 37 schools that signed “partnership agreements” to avoid being closed by the state for poor performance have committed to improving student test scores by 2-3 percent a year, on average. If they miss the mark after three years, districts will have a choice to close the schools or reconfigure them.
  • The state superintendent urged struggling schools to decline offers of help that aren’t closely aligned with a school’s improvement plan. Schools need to be “laser-focused and not bring the flavor of the month,” he said.
  • A longtime Detroit school activist urged Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to focus on the district’s lowest-performing schools.
  • One state business leader says that Michigan students lack key skills that they need to succeed.

In Detroit

  • The historic auditorium in an abandoned west side high school building was seriously damaged in a fire. A community group had been trying to buy the building to build a community center there. The group is among many would-be buyers who’ve run into roadblocks trying to repurpose vacant former schools.
  • A ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning will mark the opening of a new school-based community center where 18 organizations will offer food, job training, and other services to the neighborhood. The center was briefly in doubt last spring when the school housing it was threatened with closure.
  • An innovative laundromat program that teaches literacy to children while their parents do the wash (the subject of a Chalkbeat story last summer) has prompted a “free laundry day” in Detroit next month.
  • Two Detroit museums announced a new partnership that will allow students to experience exhibitions at each institution on a single field trip.

Across the state

  • A GOP Michigan state legislator has been nominated to a post in the U.S Education Department under fellow Michigander Betsy DeVos. The legislator is a longtime DeVos ally who last year joined her in calling for the abolition of Detroit’s main school district.
  • A bill that would allow charter schools to grant priority enrollment to children from low-income families or those who live in certain neighborhoods has been held up due to lack of support from GOP lawmakers.
  • Almost half of Michigan’s students live in a county where there are no dedicated tax funds to pay for career and technical education programs.
  • Meet the state official developing Michigan’s plan for “transforming education through technology.”
  • Michigan may be one of the nation’s least educated states, but a Free Press columnist points out that the state at least is better than Ohio.
  • Christian schools in Michigan say they’re working to improve diversity.
  • Here’s 10 things to know about Michigan private schools.
  • Today is Manufacturing Day, when thousands of area students will get behind-the-scenes tours of 130 local manufacturing companies.  
  • This suburban teacher has won the Excellence in Education award from the state lottery.