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 September 5, 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.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”

 

measuring progress

Fixing Detroit’s schools won’t happen overnight. Here’s what new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he can do by next year.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

It could be years before Detroiters see significant improvement in their struggling city schools, but Detroit’s new schools boss says there are some very specific ways that he expects to see some progress by next year.

Among them: improvements on test scores, attendance rates, teacher hiring and the amount of money district grads receive in college scholarships.

Those goals are spelled out in the documents that the Detroit school board plans to use to evaluate the new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti.

State law requires districts to evaluate superintendents on both their skills and how students perform on things like annual state exams, but Vitti asserted at a forum last week that his evaluation is “more rigorous than any superintendent in the state.”

The evaluation, he said, spells out “very clear metrics linked to reading proficiency, math proficiency, college readiness, college going, graduation rates, fully staffed status for teachers.”

The Detroit district faces countless problems including some of the nation’s lowest test scores, buildings in poor repair and a reputation so diminished among Detroiters that fewer than half of the city’s children are currently enrolled in the district’s schools.

Since arriving in May, Vitti has promised that he can transform the Detroit schools, but cautions that change won’t happen overnight.

“People have to be patient,” he said at last week’s forum. “We’re going to work with a sense of urgency. We’re working night and day, but this is not going to be rebuilt in a year. It took two decades in my calculation to break one of the best urban school districts in this country … We’re not going to rebuild it in a year.”

To see what Vitti says he can do in a year, read his evaluation targets below. The targets were approved by the Detroit school board last week.