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.

What do you think?

Detroiters react with praise — and fury — as district changes how it will decide who gets into Cass Tech and Renaissance

A student wearing a Renaissance High School t-shirt competes in a robotics competition.

Reaction was swift and strong last week when Chalkbeat reported that Detroit’s main school district is changing the way students are admitted to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective schools.

Some parents, teachers, students and members of the schools’ devoted alumni associations praised the district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admissions decisions. But others expressed anger and concern about how the changes will affect the schools and how decisions about the changes were made.

Instead of basing admissions decisions primarily on the results of a single exam, the district will this year turn the process over to an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office. They will use a score card to decide admissions with just 40 percent of a student’s score coming from the high school placement exam. The rest of the points will come from grades, essays and letters of recommendations. Students currently enrolled in the district will get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

The news turned into one of the most talked about stories on our site this year — and readers’ reactions ran the gamut. Read some of what our readers had to say below.

Some thought the change was problematic:

Others applauded the changes:

A current Cass Tech teacher said she agreed the admissions process needed to change, but was concerned that the district did not ask for her input on the new system:

How do you feel about the new admissions process? Tell us below in the comments or weigh on on Facebook or Twitter.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.