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.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

State of the Schools

Detroit’s first State of the Schools address aims to ‘bring all the parties to the table’  

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

There’s a State of the Union address, a State of the State address and a State of the City address.

Now, Detroiters will have a State of the Schools address.

“We thought it was important to do something just about schools,” said Jamila Martin, co-director of 482Forward, a citywide network of parents, students and educators that is sponsoring the first of what it hopes will be an annual event.

The State of the Schools will feature presentations from Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti as well as the leaders of two charter school authorizers — Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University — that collectively oversee 25 of the city’s 60-plus charter schools.

All three speakers have been asked to bring data on their schools in a format that will allow for easy comparisons. Vitti has made no secret of the fact that he is competing with charter schools for students, and charter advocates have chided him for not working collaboratively with them.

Including charter schools in the event was a priority, Martin said, because most of the public’s attention over the past two years has focused on Detroit’s main school district.

The district, after years of state emergency management, was in so much debt that it only avoided bankruptcy last year when state lawmakers put $617 million toward creating a debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. Since then, eyes have been on the district’s first elected school board and the board’s hiring of Vitti last spring.

“That’s all important,” Martin said, “but it tends to obscure the fact that half of our kids are in schools that are not part of DPSCD.”

The State of the Schools event, which will be held at the Gesu Catholic Church in northwest Detroit from 6-8 p.m. on October 25, will be moderated by reporters from Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine.

Organizers are asking people who want to attend in person to register in advance. For those not able to attend, the event will be carried live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

A parent, a student and a teacher will each play a formal hosting role in the event.

“This an opportunity for accountability,” said Jimmie Jones, an event host who has worked in both district and charter schools and sends his daughter Trinity, 7, to a charter.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There’s a lot of finger pointing,” Jones said. “This is an opportunity to bring all the parties to the table and unpack all of the rhetoric … and make it understandable and relatable to people.”