new day

On a superintendent’s first day, just another Tuesday for 37 Detroit first-graders with no music or art or gym

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Detroit schools have been buzzing these last two weeks with what feels like a fresh start.

A new superintendent —  Nikolai Vitti — has landed in the city and started his job as the first new leader of what is officially a new district.

He uses words like “transformation” and “vision” and “hope” to describe a future when Detroit schools will begin to address the intensive challenges that have contributed to some of the lowest test scores in the nation. He sees Detroit becoming “a mecca of improvement” that will draw young teachers from around the country who will want to be part of a city’s metamorphosis.

But spend a morning in a Detroit classroom and it quickly becomes clear exactly how much will have to change in this city before it looks anything like the “mecca” that Vitti imagines.

Spend a morning in Room 106 at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on the city’s west side.

That’s the room where first-grade teacher Rynell Sturkey arrived on the morning of May 23rd — Vitti’s first full day on the job — to discover that another teacher was out on jury duty. Since substitute teachers are rarely available, Sturkey would — again — have to double up. That morning, she’d have 37 kids.

A teaching shortage has prevented the school from hiring for non-academic classes such as music, art and gym. So Sturkey and her students will be crowded together in their cluttered classroom for seven hours, with only a break for lunch and recess. She and her colleagues get none of the prep periods that are standard for teachers in schools with more resources.

“They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said. “We make the best of what we’ve got. We work together as a team here. We support each other. But we’re exhausted.”

In addition to the crowded conditions, Sturkey says her curriculum didn’t arrive until March. Her kids are tested on computers they don’t know how to use and key supports such as social workers and counselors are hard to come by.

Sturkey has heard Vitti’s hopeful message, she said, but teachers in this city have heard a lot promises over the years and have seen the painful effects of disappointment on the city and its most vulnerable children.

“I’m keeping an open mind,” said Sturkey, a 17-year veteran of the Detroit district who grew up in the city and attended its schools. “I have to. I care about this city. I care about these kids.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
With 37 students in her class, first-grade teacher Rynell Sturkey is unable to gather her students on the floor for story time as she prefers. “You’re not going to be able to see the pictures,” she told them. “I’m sure everyone understands, right? I can’t get you on the floor to do reading today. There’s too many of you.”

On the morning of May 23, Sturkey started her day moving desks around to accommodate an additional class of 20 kids. Soon, it would be difficult to walk between the packed-in desks. Some were jammed against the blackboard, others clustered near the door.

When storytime arrived, Sturkey had to lean against a wall to read to her students instead of sitting on the floor as she prefers.

“You’re not going to be able to see the pictures,” she told them as she opened “The Garden” story from the Frog and Toad series. “I’m sure everyone understands, right? I can’t get you on the floor to do reading today. There’s too many of you.”

Sturkey read loudly and clearly to be heard over the tapping pencils, squeaking chairs and shuffling feet of more than three dozen 6- and 7-year-olds. Some kids listened to the story. Others, unable to see the pictures in the book, gazed out the window. One boy had his head down on his desk, apparently asleep.

“Heads down! Mouths closed!” Sturkey snapped when the noise level got too high. “What is all this noise? I hear a lot of talking!”

The noise level in the class is a direct result of a district-wide teacher shortage. Across the city last month, more than 200 teaching positions were unfilled, including two at Robeson.

Principal Jeffery Robinson says his openings are not a priority because they’re not in core subjects like reading or math. And low salaries make hiring difficult. First-year teachers earn $35,683 a year in Detroit according to the current contract with the city teachers union. Many suburban districts pay thousands of dollars more.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson said.

The absence of those teachers is compounded by the lack of substitutes, he said.

When the school’s seventh-grade teacher was out for an eight-week medical leave this year, the district sent a substitute for only one day, Robinson said.

Help didn’t arrive until the seventh-grade teacher returned last month from her leave.

The rest of the time “we had to make do,” Robinson said. “My teachers and I, we switched around. We did the best we could given the situation but my children’s achievement suffered.”

The doubling up in Sturkey’s classroom, which happens roughly three or four days a month, she said, is one way the teachers at Robeson make do.

It’s difficult, she said, but not as difficult as last year when she had 38 students enrolled in her classroom every day.

With that many kids, “it’s like you’re literally going into survival mode,” she said. “You’re constantly stopping for behavior or emotional needs or not knowing what’s coming in through the door that morning. For the most part, we’re able to teach, but some days it can be challenging.”

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side, said she didn’t get the workbooks she’s required to use to teach math until March this year.


Working with too many kids is only one of the challenges Sturkey has faced this year. Another was a math curriculum that didn’t arrive until March.

The textbook arrived on time, she said. But the workbooks that are a key part of the district’s math program were missing through the fall and winter.

“They just kept saying it was coming,” she said. But months passed without anything arriving.

“I supplemented with whatever materials that I had on my own, whatever research materials I could find online to use for the children,” she said. “But if you require that we use it and you’re expecting for us to use it, it should be here for us to use.”

The lack of materials have affected her students’ performance on the tracking tests the district requires her students to take, she said. But the fact that the tests are administered online makes it difficult to really evaluate their skills.

That’s because the school only has one computer lab, and that lab is dedicated almost exclusively to online testing.

When Sturkey’s students come into the lab for testing, they spend most of their time trying to figure out how to use a mouse, she said.

The lack of computer time also affects older kids in the school, including those in grades 3-8 who take the high-stakes exams that state officials use to determine which schools should be closed for poor performance.

The state exams require older kids to write short essays but Robeson students struggle with using a keyboard, Robinson said..

They’re “in there all day because they’re hunting and pecking,” Robinson said. “So on top of the challenges that the test itself presents, they have a tactile, a physical challenge because they’re not able to do the test.”

The Detroit district has some of the lowest-performing schools in Michigan. Just a fraction of students in grades 3-8 — 4.1 percent — were reading and doing math at grade level last year.

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent leaders Aliya Moore, left, and Stephanie Beal have organized protests at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy to protest a teacher shortage that has left kids without needed instruction.

Paul Robeson Malcolm X claims to be the first public school program in the United States to provide an African-centered curriculum.

The school “still produces greatness. It really does,” said parent leader Aliya Moore, 36. “Despite the shortcomings, the staff that is here finds creative ways to let a child, you know draw, or do the music part, but it’s hard now because their creativity is smothered.”

The Detroit district she attended as a child was “full of resources,” Moore said. “I had art. I had music. I had gym. I had free drivers’ training. Supplies were plentiful.”

Moore puts the blame for the district’s current lack of resources squarely on intervention by the state of Michigan.

She graduated in 1998. The following year, state lawmakers led by then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican, removed the elected school board and replaced it with a seven-person reform board, appointed largely by the mayor, that ran the schools for six years.

A decade later, another governor, Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, named the first of a series of emergency managers who ran the district — and presided over skyrocketing debt and plunging enrollment.

Last year, state lawmakers created a plan to address the district’s crippling debt by forming the Detroit Public Schools Community District, a new debt-free district that replaced the the Detroit Public Schools.

A newly elected school board took over the new district in January. It chose Vitti in April, hiring him away from the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

At an event last week, Vitti told a gathering of business and political leaders that he recognizes that Detroit teachers have experienced “trauma” from the “chaos” of recent events.

“We have to recognize the past and understand the pain that’s connected to that past because it’s real,” he said at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. “You hear it from teachers on a daily basis, but you also see the beauty of what’s happening in the school system.”

Vitti has vowed to address the teacher shortage and to do what he can to raise teacher pay. During his job interview, he boasted of expanding music and arts in Florida. He talked of better technology for schools and says he’s listening to teachers and administrators.

The parents and educators at Robeson remain skeptical. They know that despite the district’s status as a new, debt-free entity, it still faces severe financial constraints.

But they’re hopeful that some things, somehow, will change — and that students in the district will someday have the same opportunities as their peers across the state and nation.

“Our kids come to school because they want to learn,” Sturkey said. “We need for them to have a level playing field.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job, May 23, 2017

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.