Vitti's team

Superintendent’s inner circle: These are the people Detroit’s new schools boss Nikolai Vitti has tapped to help rebuild the district

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Since arriving in Detroit two months ago, new schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been assembling a team of educators, lawyers — even investment bankers — to support his effort to improve the city’s struggling schools.

Among people he’s leaning on are some familiar figures in Detroit like former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and longtime district facilities chief Felicia Venable. But Vitti’s team includes many new arrivals he lured from his last job as Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. Also on the list are several people who served as top officials in the Education Achievement Authority, the defunct state recovery district that took over 15 Detroit schools in 2012. The EAA schools returned to the main Detroit district on July 1.

Here’s a look at who Vitti is turning to for advice, what they’ll be doing — and how much they’ll be paid.

Luis Solano
Chief Operating Officer

Salary: $195,000

Duties: Oversee the internal daily functions of district departments; serve as the bridge between the superintendent and district departments, initiatives and  programs.

Last job: Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Collier County Public Schools, Naples, Fla.

His story: An Army veteran and former teacher, principal and assistant principal, Solano, a fluent Spanish speaker, worked with Vitti in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district. He has degrees in special education from Florida International University, a master’s degree in Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University and will soon complete a doctorate in education from the University of West Florida.


Iranetta Wright
Deputy Superintendent of Schools

Salary: $190,000

Duties: Oversee the daily operations of schools; manage and lead principal supervisors and indirectly principals; oversee leadership development, counseling, mental health services, discipline, school police, athletics, school improvement, and the needs of homeless students and those who are learning English.

Last job: Chief of Schools, Duval County Public Schools, Jacksonville, Fla.

Her story: Wright worked in Duval schools for 25 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal until Vitti tapped her for the district’s central office. Most recently she led the district’s high-profile “transformation” office which oversaw 36 high-need, low-performing schools. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.


Alycia Meriweather
Deputy Superintendent of External Partnerships and Innovation

Salary: $180,000

Duties: Lead district efforts with business, non-profit, and philanthropic communities; oversee career and technical programs, examination schools, and enrollment efforts.

Last job: Interim Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools grad has worked in the district for 22 years including 12 years as a science teacher. She worked in the district’s Office of Science and its curriculum office before becoming its top education official in 2016. She has education degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University and is currently pursuing a a doctorate at Wayne State.



Beth Gonzalez
Senior Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of early learning, literacy, mathematics, social studies, and science; leads districtwide work for core professional development; manages curriculum adoption process.

Last job: Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Gonzalez has spent most of her 17-year career in the Duval County schools, working as a fifth-grade math teacher, a curriculum specialist, a data coordinator and a supervisor of test development. She worked for the Florida state education department before returning to the district to work for Vitti. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida and is pursuing a doctorate at the University of South Florida.

David Donaldson
Senior Executive Director of Talent

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide human resources functions, including recruiting teachers, on-boarding, fingerprinting, and labor relations.

Last Job: Chief Operating Officer, Future Ready Columbus in Ohio.

His story: Donaldson was briefly the principal of the Detroit Institute of Technology, one of the small schools inside Cody High School from July 2013 to February 2014 before leaving the district to join the Education Achievement Authority as associate chancellor. He left Detroit briefly this year for the job in Ohio before returning to work for Vitti. He also taught school as a Teach For America fellow in Baltimore and worked in the New York City Department of Education. He has degrees from Eastern Michigan University, Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in education from Harvard University.

Felicia Venable
Senior Executive Director of Facilities, Transportation, Food Service and Maintenance.

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Lead districtwide management and implementation of facilities, transportation, food service, and maintenance.

Last job: Executive Director of Facilities, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Worked for the Detroit district in various roles since 2000 after a stint as a health inspector and analyst for the city of Detroit. She has degrees from Tennessee State University, Wayne State University and Walsh College.


Elizabeth Cutrona
Senior Executive Director for Strategic Planning and Project Management

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Oversee district strategic plan, goals, and targets; manage district project management system; develop evaluation tools and performance targets.

Last Job: Assistant Superintendent, Strategic Planning and Partnerships, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Cutrona worked as an English teacher for three years in Miami before going to work for The New Teacher Project, an advocacy organization. In 2015, she interviewed Vitti for the organization’s blog. She went to work for him in 2016. She has a degree from Hamilton College.


Sharlonda Buckman
Senior Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Lead districtwide community and family engagement efforts.

Last Job: Executive Director, Detroit Parent Network.

Her story: The Detroit native has been running the city’s largest parent network since 2005. The organization said it expanded its membership by 12 times during her time at the helm. She also worked as an administrator at the Michigan Metro Girl Scouts Council, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit and the Warren/Connor Development Coalition. She has a master’s degree from New Hampshire College.


Christine Burkett
Senior Executive Director of Information Technology

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide information technology systems; manage compliance and reporting functions for accountability and assessment (i.e. district and state testing).

Last Job: Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Data, Technology and Assessment at Old Redford Academy School District.

Her story: Burkett started her career as a science tech, chemistry and robotics teacher at Detroit’s Crockett Tech and Redford High Schools before going to work for charter schools. She has served as a curriculum and assessment coordinator for the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences High School and as a top official at the Old Redford Academy. She also worked for private sector firms including General Motors where she developed training for new employees and created online training courses. She has degrees from Delaware State University, Marygrove College, Capella University and a doctorate in educational psychology and technology from Michigan State University.


Jason Rose
Senior Executive Director of Research, Evaluation, and Analytics

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of internal and external research. Evaluates district programs; manages data analytics to anticipate districtwide challenges and opportunities; develops policy analysis to guide district strategy.

Last job: Vice-President, Data & Research, Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

His story: Rose worked as an elementary school teacher in Georgia for four years before going into research as he pursued a doctorate in early childhood intervention and literacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s worked for the Jacksonville education fund since 2011. He also has degrees from Ithaca College and Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia.

Rod Hardamon
Special Projects

Salary: being negotiated

Duties: Manages complex, high-level and visible special projects across departments to ensure execution.

Last job: Chairman, URGE Development Group and URGE Imprint.

His story: While Hardamon’s development group is pursuing a $77 million housing and retail development in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, his strategic consulting group helped lead the effort to re-integrate the EAA schools with the main Detroit district. Before moving to Detroit, Hardamon worked as a New York investment banker and hedge fund manager for Citigroup and related firms. He has a degree from Morehouse College.


Kristen Howard
Executive Director of Compliance and Special Assistant to the Superintendent

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Manages follow-up activities of federal and state audit findings; oversees development of board committee and board meeting agenda; coordinates and follows up on superintendent issues with the board.

Last Job: Executive Director of Compliance, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: As an attorney with the Clark Hill lawfirm, Howard represented the Detroit Retirement System in Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy proceedings. She came to work for Detroit schools last year as an unpaid consultant to Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes. She later spent six months as a senior legal advisor to the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in the compliance role in December. Howard graduated from from Georgetown law school and clerked for a federal judge in Maryland. She also has a degree from Howard University.


Bernadette Kakooza
Inspector General

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts to identify and investigate fraud, malfeasance, corruption; tentatively positioned to lead internal auditing to identify audit concerns before federal and state audits. This position reports to the school board but is led administratively by the superintendent.


Last job: Inspector General, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Kakooza has spent her entire 20-year career in the district, working as an auditor and accountant for Office of Internal Audit, the Office of the Inspector General and at Cass Technical High School. She is a certified fraud examiner with degrees from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Interim officials:

Tony Saunders
Interim chief financial officer

Salary: $25,000 a month per contract (includes additional support personnel, no health benefits).

Duties: Oversee districtwide functions for budget, finance, payroll, contracting, and federal programs.

Last job: Chief Restructuring and Financial Officer, Wayne County.

His story: Saunders has advised many school districts and government agencies in Michigan and around the country and worked for a firm that helped the city of Detroit through its bankruptcy. He has a degree from the University of Michigan.



Chrystal Wilson
Interim Senior Executive Director of Communications and Marketing

Salary: $120,000

Duties: Lead districtwide internal and external communications, including development and implementation of marketing plan.

Last job: Deputy Executive Director of Communications and Press Secretary, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Wilson served as communications director for the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in 2015.  She previously worked for a private PR firm. She has a degree from Wayne State University.


Phyllis Hurks-Hill
Chief Legal Counsel (This position is posted for interviews)

Salary: $155,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts in legal review and guidance; oversees board policy and development.

Last job: General Counsel, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit resident has worked for the district, first as a deputy general counsel then as general counsel, since 2005. Prior to that she was in private practice. She has degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan Law School.



Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. 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.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.

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.”