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

Ending the churn

A splintered system and lack of teachers have created instability for Detroit schools. Now, leaders are craving solutions.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames learned that his former school took summer paychecks back from teachers who quit in August when money disappeared from his bank account.

Like many school leaders in Detroit, Danielle Robinson spent the month of August doggedly searching for teachers.

Robinson is the top Detroit official for Phalen Leadership Academies, a nonprofit charter school network that took over three Detroit schools from another manager in July.

By late August, with the start of school just days away, Phalen still needed 34 teachers to staff Murphy, Stewart and Trix elementary schools.

And there wasn’t much time.

“We did $5,000 retention bonuses,” Robinson said. “We did  $5,000 signing bonuses. We did $1,000 referral bonuses … We needed to make sure we had enough teachers because that’s a huge thing for students when they come back — a permanent teacher in the classroom. ”

Phalen’s challenge was extreme — a problem exacerbated by management changes and by the dissolution of the state-run recovery district that had been overseeing the three schools. They’re now overseen by a Detroit district unsure of its plans for charters.

But the schools’ scramble for teachers is hardly unusual in a city where liberal school choice laws, a decentralized school system and a shrinking pool of available teachers have so destabilized the teacher labor force that many school leaders say they’re constantly looking for new educators to hire.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my career,” said Mark Ornstein who heads the seven-campus University Prep charter school network in Detroit. “There’s just not enough people to fill the number of vacancies …. We’re all seeing more and more teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

So many schools are looking for teachers — in August, September and throughout the year — that educators can wait for bonuses and enticements to grow before accepting an offer. And every time a teacher takes an offer and leaves, that creates a vacancy likely to be filled by a teacher from another school. That other school then has a vacancy to fill.

As teachers leave, students suffer. Research shows that teachers hired during or just before the school year are less effective than those who’ve had more time to prepare and to properly learn their school’s curriculum.

Experts say the teacher churn is driven in part by the fierce competition between schools in Detroit that has intensified as charter schools have expanded — they now comprise nearly half of the city’s schools — and as more suburban schools actively recruit city kids. Parents often enroll in multiple schools while weighing their options and schools are left to guess how many students they’ll have and how many teachers they’ll need.

“It’s another consequence of this hyper-competition that has been created by our charter school programs and laws here in Michigan and it’s really working to the detriment of everybody involved,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of education policy at Wayne State University.

“The schools are competing for students,” he said. “The students will dictate the revenues and that dictates their budget and therefore their ability to hire staff … And if a school is plagued with high teacher turnover, that makes it difficult for students. Outcomes won’t be good and as that information becomes public, those schools don’t do well in school choice decisions and enrollment will drop.”

Some Detroit schools are now pushing back on teachers who quit mid-year by putting financial penalties into teachers’ contracts that discourage them from leaving, but advocates say real solutions will require major changes.

Among them: improving conditions in schools so that teachers want to stay and creating partnerships between district and charter schools to minimize instability.

“In other states, schools set their budgets and know their enrollment so much further ahead that they can come to a [spring] job fair and know exactly who they need to hire,” said Karey Henderson, the director of the Metro Detroit Charter Center who was the assistant superintendent of a 10-school Michigan charter network called Global Educational Excellence.

In Michigan, enrollment “doesn’t really get fleshed out often until Count Day [in October],” Henderson said. “Teachers are nervous and they’re applying around …. We would be trying to train new teachers but then a public school would get more kids and need more teachers and our teachers would get a call … We would have to start out the year with long-term subs in the classroom.”

Then, if parents see a substitute in the classroom, they might move their child to another school — and the churn continues.

Much of the attention this year has focused on the difficulties facing Detroit’s main school district as it works to fill scores of vacancies  in its 106 schools, but the problem is playing out somewhat differently in charter schools where teachers tend to be younger and are more likely to change jobs — or to the leave the profession entirely — from one year to the next.

A recent report from the state education department found that charter school teachers are twice as likely to leave their jobs compared to teachers in traditional public schools. The same report found a higher teacher turnover in Michigan as compared to the national average and put the price tag of replacing a teacher at nearly $10,000.

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent Michigan Department of Education report shows that Michigan teachers — especially those who work for charter schools — are more likely to leave their jobs than their peers across the country.

Another state report shows the problem for all schools could get even worse in coming years as the number of people applying for teacher certifications drops precipitously — much faster than the number of students who need a teacher.

School leaders say they’re taking steps to attract more teachers. Detroit school  superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s working to build a “teacher pipeline” that would encourage district graduates to go into education, do their training in Detroit and work here when they graduate.

Charter school leaders say they’re making similar efforts.

Grand Valley State University now provides scholarships to education students who do their training in Detroit charter schools overseen by Grand Valley, said Rob Kimball, who heads the university’s charter school office.  

Leaders from Grand Valley charter schools have also been meeting with their counterparts from schools overseen by Central Michigan University to discuss a “coordinated talent strategy,” Kimball said.

“There’s definitely an interest in coming up with a shared solution,” Kimball said. “We need to design a solution to really stabilize the marketplace for teacher talent and to develop a pipeline [for future teachers].”

PHOTO: Michigan Department of Education
A recent report from the Michigan Department of Education warns that number of new teacher certifications is dropping much faster than the number of students in the state.

In the absence of a citywide solution, individual schools are doing whatever they can to fill classrooms.

In the case of the Phalen Leadership Academies, Robinson, the top official, said her schools  applied for emergency certifications to put some people without teaching credentials into classrooms. The new teachers will get extra coaching to help them succeed, Robinson said, but it was a tough choice for an Indiana-based network that prides itself on hiring only highly qualified staff.

“None of our other schools in our network use emergency permits,” Robinson said.

Some charter schools have created bonus systems that require teachers to return for the next school year in order to collect last year’s bonus.

Others — including the University Prep schools — have contracts that don’t allow teachers to get their full summer pay unless they return for the new school year.

Social studies teacher Aaron Ames said he learned that the hard way when he resigned his job at the University Prep Academy Middle School on Aug. 18 to take a position with a different school.

Suddenly, he said, his last paycheck disappeared from his bank account.

“I looked at my bank account one day and saw a negative $900,” Ames said.

University Prep had paid him on Aug. 15 but took the money back when he quit three days later.

Ornstein said his teachers’ contracts begin on Aug. 1. If they resign before teacher training begins on Aug. 21, it means they didn’t do any work and shouldn’t have been paid.

Ames was furious. “It kind of make me want to quit teaching,” he said. “They should find a way to keep teachers honestly instead of trying to punish us for leaving.”

Contract provisions that seem designed to penalize departures are becoming increasingly common in Detroit charter schools, teachers union leaders say.

“At one charter school, the teachers call it the ‘death tax,’” said Nate Walker, an organizer and policy analyst with the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the main Detroit district and in a handful of city charter schools. “They’re loading up penalties on teachers to try to deter them from leaving so close to the beginning of the school year … but that’s not going to fix the problem because the labor market in Detroit is destabilized and decentralized.”

Walker called for schools to give teachers contracts earlier in the year and to coordinate with each other so that teachers can know they’ll have income and health insurance over the summer even if they plan to change jobs in September.

The current structure encourages teachers to hold on to last year’s job until the insurance for next year’s job kicks in in August or September, Walker said.

“This is a lot easier said than done because of the multi-operator system that we have right now, but if employers were to make the commitment that any time they’ve given someone an offer to work in the fall, they’re also willing to turn on insurance for that employee, that could solve at least part of the problem,” Walker said.

The only way to fix the rest of the problem, Addonizio said, is to address the reasons that teachers leave in the first place.  

“The best thing that a school or a school district can do to combat the teacher turnover problem is to improve working conditions in the school,” Addonizio said. “For new teachers, their compensation might mean something, but more than anything, they want some mentoring, assistance from veteran teachers. They want some help.”

Henderson said schools need to find a way to start working together — instead of just poaching teachers from each other.

“Get everyone in the room,” she said. “I know everyone is protective over how they manage their schools and run their H.R. but if you get enough H.R. people together in the same room, I think you can come up with a solution.”

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.