Back to class

On Detroit’s first day of class, unusual staffing problems hobble some schools and draw parent protests

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with students at Durfee Elementary/Middle School on the first day of school in September, 2017.

Amid the excitement, first-day jitters and logistical challenges that many schools face on the first day of class, Detroit’s main school district was dealing some unique complications.

The district faced hiccups related to its merger with a defunct state-run recovery district and was still scrambling to fill more than 250 teaching jobs.

The teacher vacancies, which have long troubled city schools, have continued despite new superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s commitment to see all of the district’s 106 schools fully staffed by the first day of school.

“I’m disappointed because my expectation is that every child deserves a fully certified teacher on the first day of school,” Vitti said, noting that most of those classrooms are being staffed by non certified substitutes.

About 50 job candidates are currently being fingerprinted and vetted in hopes of joining the district soon, which will lower the number of vacancies, Vitti said. He hopes to fill the rest of those positions soon.

“We recruited 225 teachers over less than two months,” he said. “I think we’ve demonstrated an ability to recruit teachers in hard times and there’s momentum and there’s clarity that we can recruit teachers if we have a long enough runway to get off the ground.”

Vitti spent his morning making the rounds of district schools, visiting four elementary schools and a high school to check on enrollment, teacher vacancies, and other challenges.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit supertintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with students at Durfee Elementary/Middle School on the first day of school, September 5, 2017.

At Central High School, he saw several ramifications of staffing shortages, not just of teachers but of all kinds of staff.  

Vitti noted to Central’s principal, Abraham Sohn, that the noise level was remarkably high in the school cafeteria.

“My two cents,” Vitti told Sohn after leaving the lunchroom, “is you need systems and structures in there.”

“We do,” Sohn agreed. “But we don’t have the staff right now.”

Vitti heard a similar story when asked LaToyia Webb-Harris, the principal at Durfee Elementary/Middle School, which now shares a building with Central, how student enrollment was going.

Webb-Harris said she wasn’t entirely sure because she’d had difficulty completing a student headcount.

“We’re struggling with clerical, struggling really bad,” she told Vitti.

Vitti promised both principals that he would send back up from the central office to help.

“We’ve already moved people from the district level into schools and will continue to do that even in clerical,” he told Webb-Harris.

“We need to give you some help,” he told Sohn.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Central High School principal Abraham Sohn tells Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti that the high noise level in the school cafeteria on the first day of school is because “we don’t have the staff right now.”

The end of the state-run Education Achievement Authority after five years this summer exacerbated the teacher vacancies. Since EAA schools paid higher salaries and also gave teachers salary credit for years spent teaching in other districts, which the main district does not, many EAA teachers faced sharp pay cuts if they remained in the schools where they worked last year. Many took higher-paying jobs in the suburbs or in charter schools.

At Central, which had been part of the EAA, Sohn said just 25 percent of the school’s staff returned this year. Vitti said 65 of the 250 vacancies are in 11 former EAA schools.

The transition back to Detroit’s main district has also created other unexpected issues, Sohn said. Students who had transferred to EAA schools after being barred by the Detroit district for disciplinary reasons are having trouble re-enrolling now that their schools are back in the main district.

Former EAA schools are also trying to figure out how to address the fact that while EAA schools gave all students bus passes regardless of their addresses, the district’s policy is to give passes only to students who live in a certain zone.

Vitti says those issues will be addressed in coming weeks.

As he toured Central and Durfee, Vitti said he thought the merger of the schools into the same building was going well. Durfee moved into Central following the controversial decision by the district’s last emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, to lease Durfee to a community group. It was a decision Rhodes made on one of his last days with the district in December, citing the poor quality of Durfee’s building and a surplus of space in Central’s.

Vitti said the Durfee students seem to be in nicer classrooms than they occupied last year. “The shift for the Durfee students was the right one,” he said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Not all district schools faced challenges on the first day. Students at Detroit’s Chrysler elementary school walked the red carpet the school set up for the first day of school.

Some parents and teachers across the district say they’re hopeful for improvements this year, but many remain seriously concerned — including parents at Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy, who were planning to protest teacher vacancies in their school.

“I feel unsatisfied and neglected,” Aliya Moore, a parent leader at the school, wrote in an email.

The teacher shortage has meant the application school doesn’t have the staff to offer classes such as gym or music or art.

“We (parents and community members) will not continue to allow our children to be shortchanged,” Moore wrote.

Many teachers, who have seen frequent leadership changes in the district over the past decade, remain skeptical about whether a new superintendent and a new school board will make this school year any different from past years.

“It’s kind of same old, same old,” said Detroit teachers union leader Ivy Bailey. “I think people are kind of waiting and seeing.”

Bailey said her members were reporting some first-day-of-school challenges across the district, but “nothing unusual.”

It was also the first day of school for many Detroit charter school students including these kindergarteners at the University Prep Academy charter school. Some 3,500 students are enrolled in University Prep schools.

more money fewer problems

Detroit teachers will finally get paid for their years of experience if agreement holds up with district

Ally Duncan, an elementary school teacher in Lake County, works with students on sentence structure. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Good news for Detroit district teachers stuck at a low pay level: The finance committee of the school board Friday recommended an agreement with the city’s largest teachers union to raise the pay of veteran teachers — and to bring in experienced teachers at higher salaries.

“This is a major step for the district to fully recognize experience,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “A lot of the adult issues have been put aside to focus on children.”

The changes will be for members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest teachers union.

For years, Detroit teachers have bargained for contracts that severely restricted the pay of experienced teachers who wanted to come into the district. As a result, new teachers can currently only get credit for two years of experience, regardless of how many years they’ve taught in other cities or in charter schools.

Vitti has called that restriction a major reason why it’s difficult to attract new teachers and keep existing ones. And with fewer teachers, classroom sizes start to balloon.

Detroit currently has 190 teacher vacancies, down from 275 at this point last year.

The committee also recommended giving a one-time bonus to teachers at the top of the salary scale, to recognize outside experience for current and future teachers, and to repay the Termination Incentive Plan as soon as this September.

The incentive plan took $250 from teachers’ biweekly paycheck and held it to pay them when they left the district when emergency managers were in control, but the money was never given back to teachers, said Ivy Bailey, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Teachers who have paid into the incentive plan from the beginning will receive $9,000. The teachers union made a contract with the district last year that stipulated the money be paid by 2020, but the new agreement would move the payment to this September.

Finally, a bonus — $1,373.60 — for more than 2,000 teachers at the top of the pay scale would be paid in December.

Potentially, some teachers receiving bonuses and who are eligible for the incentive plan payment would receive in excess of $10,000,

“The bonus for teachers on the top is focused on ensuring that we retain our most veteran teachers as we work on an agreement in the third year to increase, once again, teachers at the top step so they can be made whole after emergency manager reductions,” Vitti said.  “We can do that once our enrollment settles or increases.”

In all, the district proposes to spend a combined $5.7 million to pay current and future teachers for how long they’ve worked, $3.2 million on bonuses for veteran teachers, and $22 million on the incentive plan.

“This is something none of us were expecting,” Bailey said. “This is good for everyone. We already ratified a contract, so this is just extra.”

It’s a tentative agreement between the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Bailey said.

If an agreement is reached and the school board approves it, the changes could give the district a new tool in trying to reduce the teacher shortage. It’s a major change for district teachers who saw their pay slashed by 10 percent in 2011. The new contract ratified by the union members last summer promised to increase teacher pay by 7 percent over three years but many teachers grumbled that it wasn’t enough to bring them back to where they were in 2011. 

The two groups are still in talks to “iron out the details,” Bailey said. Specifically, the union wants to make sure that district employees like counselors, therapists and college support staff also receive higher salaries commensurate with experience.

Detroit's future

Despite top scores in quality standards, Michigan’s early education programs neglect English language learners

PHOTO: Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post
Josiah Berg, 4, paints a picture at Mile High Montessori, one of more than 250 Denver preschools that are part of the Denver Preschool Program.

Michigan’s 4-year-olds receive some of the highest quality education and care available in the country — that is, if your child can speak English.

Michigan was one of only three states to meet all 10 quality benchmarks designed by a national advocacy organization that released its annual State of Preschool Report this week. However, the state met only one out of 10 benchmarks for English language learners.

Four-year-olds enrolled in privately funded programs are not included in this data.

Enrollment and state spending per pupil stayed largely constant from the same report last year. About 30 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled — some 38,371 children — while state spending was steady at $6,356 per pupil.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan ranks 16th out of 43 states and Washington, D.C., in enrollment for 4-year-olds and allocates about $1,000 more dollars on per pupil spending than the average state.

These findings come from the State of Preschool 2017 report published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

Three states — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island — met all 10 of the institute’s benchmarks for minimum state preschool quality standards. Benchmarks included things like student-to-teacher ratios, teacher training, and quality of curriculum.

But the only benchmark the state met for English learners is permitting bilingual instruction in the state-funded preschool program. Michigan did not meet benchmarks for assessing children in their home language, allocating more money for English learners, or making sure staff are trained in working with students learning English.

Authors of the new report say supporting English learners is important, especially early in life.

“For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development.” said Steve Barnett, senior co-director of the institute. “We know that dual-language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool. At the same time, they’re at elevated risk for school failure.”

About a quarter of early education students nationwide are English learners. Michigan does not collect data on the number of early education students who are English learners, so it’s unclear how many students the low quality of instruction impacts.

Chalkbeat Colorado’s Ann Schimke contributed to this report.