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. Vitti said he expects that master teachers will co-teach a classroom of kids, with one teacher working with that classroom on math and science while the other teacher is elsewhere in the building.

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.

What do you think?

Detroiters react with praise — and fury — as district changes how it will decide who gets into Cass Tech and Renaissance

PHOTO: DPSCD
A student wearing a Renaissance High School t-shirt competes in a robotics competition.

Reaction was swift and strong last week when Chalkbeat reported that Detroit’s main school district is changing the way students are admitted to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective schools.

Some parents, teachers, students and members of the schools’ devoted alumni associations praised the district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admissions decisions. But others expressed anger and concern about how the changes will affect the schools and how decisions about the changes were made.

Instead of basing admissions decisions primarily on the results of a single exam, the district will this year turn the process over to an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office. They will use a score card to decide admissions with just 40 percent of a student’s score coming from the high school placement exam. The rest of the points will come from grades, essays and letters of recommendations. Students currently enrolled in the district will get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

The news turned into one of the most talked about stories on our site this year — and readers’ reactions ran the gamut. Read some of what our readers had to say below.

Some thought the change was problematic:


Others applauded the changes:




A current Cass Tech teacher said she agreed the admissions process needed to change, but was concerned that the district did not ask for her input on the new system:

How do you feel about the new admissions process? Tell us below in the comments or weigh on on Facebook or Twitter.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.