Looking ahead

New Detroit schools chief on city educators: ‘it is miraculous that they are still educating children’ after district’s ‘trauma’

Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn moderates a panel on the future of Detroit schools feating United Way of Southeast MIchigan's Herman Gray, new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and Walbridge CEO John Rakolta, Jr.

After a week of meeting with teachers in Detroit schools, new Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the city’s educators are facing a challenge that goes beyond just teaching kids.

They need to recover from “trauma” and “chaos,” he said.

“What I see when I visit schools and I meet with folks inside the organization … [is] a group of individuals that are deeply committed to children,” Vitti told an audience of business and political leaders Wednesday morning at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.

“I see system that has gone through trauma, been a part of chaos, but has focused on children,” Vitti said. “And considering all the drama that they’ve been a part of, it is miraculous that they are still educating children with a degree of focus.”

VItti was a featured panelist in a session Wednesday morning at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel that focused on the future of Detroit schools. (Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn moderated the panel, which the Skillman Foundation sponsored. The Skillman Foundation also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

In an hourlong session, Vitti and the other panelists — United Way of Southeast Michigan President Herman Gray and Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr. — addressed a host of strategies that could improve Detroit schools, including improving special education, solving the city teacher shortage, and giving teachers a long-awaited pay raise.

But Vitti’s most passionate remarks came when he discussed the ongoing effects of the last 20 years in Detroit schools, which have included multiple state interventions and a series of emergency managers who presided over years of rising debt and declining enrollment in the district.

Teachers and educators have been worn down by “all the leaders that have come and gone, the different governance structures,” Vitti said. But he’s hoping his arrival will herald a new day.

“Now is the time to shift,” he said. “It’s now time to be a strategic thoughtful, active organization, not one that is reactive. Not one that is passive. Not one that is waiting for someone else to determine … its fate but to take ownership of what we know a world-class large urban school district looks like.”

Vitti is looking to buy a house in Detroit, he said, and is actively looking for schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District for his four children, including two who have special needs.  

He says the struggles that district educators have endured in recent years are a reason he feels he can trust his children to the district.

“Those teachers that have stayed, those principals that have stayed, there’s a great deal of commitment that goes along with that,” he said. “So any time you’re thinking about where to put your children as far as education is concerned, you want them to be connected to educators that deeply believe in the process.”

Vitti said he sees “pockets of excellence” when he visits schools and hopes other parents who’ve rejected to the district in the past will give it a chance.

“The challenge I have often is people make assumptions about schools without even visiting them,” he said. “Don’t go on stereotypes. Don’t go on perceptions. Don’t got entirely on what you read in the newspaper or see on TV. Actually visit the schools themselves and you see great teachers, great principals, great programs … so as someone with multiple degrees, well educated, my wife the same way, if we’re willing to put our children in the school system, then there are so many other parents that should do the exact same thing.”

Watch the full video of the Mackinac session here, courtesy of Detroit Public Television.

Dropped charters

Detroit board members decide not to renew charter, leaving 3 schools and 700 students in limbo

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Earl Phalen founded Phalen Leadership Academies, a fast-growing network of charter schools that could have to scramble following a Detroit school board decision.

Three Detroit charter schools face renewed uncertainty after two school board panels voiced opposition to renewing their contracts.

Murphy, Trix, and Stewart academies were removed from the city’s main district by the state in 2012 and placed into a state-run recovery district that converted them into charters. They remained charters when the recovery district dissolved last year and its schools returned to the district. 

Now the schools managers that run the three schools must find a new backer — and perhaps move into a new building, too.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s position has been clear for months: The main district competes with charter schools for teachers and students, he says. It shouldn’t spend its time overseeing them.

Dealing with district-authorized charter schools “is not a priority,” he told board members at a public meeting on Monday morning. “The lift is so heavy right now with our own schools, that one second not spent on our schools seems to be… a lost opportunity.”

But when Vitti brought the issue to the board in November, the board didn’t come to a decision.

Facing an uncertain future, some district-authorized charter schools chose to find other backers. But the organization that operates Murphy, Trix, and Stewart — an Indianapolis-based charter network called Phalen Leadership Academies — held out, hoping the school board would grant the schools more time.

On Monday, board members on two sub-committees decided not to do that. They agreed not to renew the schools’ charter, which is set to expire in June, meaning the issue will not go before the full board.

Sonya Mays, chair of the finance subcommittee, declined to support the renewal of the schools’ charter despite concerns that the transition could be turbulent for students there.

“My primary concern is not having the academic experience of those students disrupted,” she said.

Dozens of universities and school districts authorize charters in Michigan, and Vitti expressed confidence that Murphy, Trix, and Stewart, which together enroll more than 700 students, will be able to find an authorizer elsewhere. Phalen Leadership Academies contacted at least one other charter authorizer about a transfer, but did not submit the requisite paperwork. Creating a new charter can take much of a year, but officials at Central Michigan University, the authorizer contacted by Phalen, said a three-month turnaround is not impossible.

Earl Phalen, the organization’s president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For LaMar Lemmons, who joined Mays in opposing the charter, the issue was clear-cut.

“They were basically funneling our children into the charters,” he said of the state officials who spun off the former district schools into independent entities. “Those students walk to school to Trix. We would immediately absorb 90 percent of those students.”

But the district likely won’t be able to open a school on Trix’s building for a couple of years. Vitti wants to renegotiate the lease on the district-owned building with Phalen’s organization, saying it was “very generous.” If those talks fail, the district would regain control of the building, but Vitti says the buildings are in poor repair.

Starting a new school could pose a challenge for a district already racing to fill nearly 200 open teaching posts by next fall. The building already has many buildings that are far from fully occupied.

“I don’t want to start the school year with 25 vacancies at one school,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who also opposed renewing the contract.

It will be years before the district can get out of the charter business entirely. Three of its 10 remaining contracts don’t expire until 2022 (see below for a full list).

Without a means of exiting those agreements, the Office of Charter Schools, which oversees the district’s charters, won’t close its doors any time soon. Indeed, even as the finance subcommittee spoke out against renewing charters for Trix, Murphy, and Stewart, it approved $4,000 to send district employees to training for charter authorizers.

Bussing together

A partnership to make bus stops for students at district and charter schools in Detroit appears to be back on track

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools
Schulze Elementary is one of ten stops on a proposed school bus route that would carry charter and district students.

A city plan to boost collaboration between district and charter schools cleared a speed bump on Monday, as a district committee narrowly approved a joint bus route in Northwest Detroit. The proposal will go before the full board next month.

The district’s finance sub-committee shelved concerns about the program’s cost and the role of charter schools, with two of three board members voicing support.

The proposed bus line would stop at 10 elementary and middle schools, including six district schools, Vitti said. (See below for a list of schools and a map of the proposed route.)

It hit a snag earlier this year when Vitti balked at the price tag of $20,000 per school, arguing that the district could wind up subsidizing transportation for charter schools if few students sign up to ride the bus. Instead, the plan presented Monday requires the district to pay a per-student fee — $1,000 annually for each student who rides twice a day, and $500 per year for once-daily riders.

Vitti said the plan would help the district lure back the 32,000 Detroit students who leave the city every day for school, sometimes using free transportation offered by nearby districts and charter schools.

“This gives us an opportunity to retain and recruit students specifically due to the bus loop,” Vitti said.

The bus line would also help students access after-school programs at schools and community centers, including arts and robotics classes that are not available in some Detroit schools.

Mayor Mike Duggan touted the plan in his State of the City address in March, emphasizing his administration’s efforts to promote cooperation between the district and charter schools.  

Still, the remaining opposition to the plan came from a board member wary of working with charter schools, which compete with the main district for students and teachers. For LaMar Lemmons, the partnership with charter schools posed the greatest issue, not the cost. He noted that the district has declined to collaborate with charter schools on other programs, such as food service.

“You’re getting into a relationship with a group of charter schools to enhance their services,” said Lemmons, who recently announced a bid for state Senate. “I think that’s inconsistency of message.”

Sonya Mays, chair of the finance committee, said under the per-student billing model, district funds would only go to its students who rode the bus line.

“In many instances our district does not have adequate resources to solve some of the problems that we face,” she said, noting that she “supports pilots with other stakeholders.”

The first year of the proposed program is a test run. If the full board votes in favor of the plan at its June 12 meeting, the district’s portion of the funding will be taken from money set aside for contingencies. The city and philanthropies will cover one-third each of the bus line’s overall cost. Predicting the actual cost to schools is difficult because officials aren’t sure how many students will use the buses.

Students using the line could be issued an ID card that could be swiped upon boarding the bus, allowing the district and parents to keep tabs on each child, Vitti said.

Board member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry asked for more detailed assurances about security at public facilities like the Northwest Activity Center, which would be included on the route after school.

“How are they secure… while they’re at that facility?” she asked, noting, for instance, that student access could be limited to one door.

Schools to be served by the proposed line include: Bagley Elementary, Schulze Elementary-Middle, Lincoln-King Academy, Coleman A. Young Elementary, John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy, Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, Detroit Achievement Academy, University Yes Academy, Vernor Elementary, and David Ellis Academy. In the afternoon, it would make stops at the Tindal Center and the Northwest Activity Center, community buildings in the area.