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.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.

Certified — but ready?

Detroit schools will hire teachers without classroom experience, sparking debate

PHOTO: Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University's traditional teacher certification program is on the list of teacher pipelines for Detroit's main district. So are alternative programs with far fewer requirements. At an EMU hiring fair, teachers said they are having no trouble finding jobs.

Detroit’s main district is proceeding with a plan to hire teachers who are certified but have received no training in the classroom — adding an element of controversy to efforts to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies by the end of summer.

The board of education on Tuesday approved a hiring plan proposed by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, signaling that the district will lean partly on programs that offer so-called interim teaching certificates.

The move drew blowback from board members and parents, who argued that Detroit children deserve teachers who have been trained in the classroom.

“I don’t think the alternative route teachers are nearly as prepared as the traditional route,” LaMar Lemmons, a school board member, told Chalkbeat. “It will increase the academic disparity, as you have less qualified and less experienced teachers.”

Online, where much of the debate over district hiring practices took place, some parents worried that teachers with interim certificates would be unprepared to manage a classroom.

“So your first day of teaching will be your first day ever in front of children?” Cynthia Jackson, a Detroit parent, wrote on Chalkbeat Detroit’s Facebook page. “You don’t think that’s going to be a problem?”

For others, the news that the district will consider candidates with alternative certifications was a call to action. Nikki Key, a Detroit parent who has a master’s degree in business, commented on Facebook that the teacher shortage has her considering a career in education.

“I’ve seen what is being offered to our children, trust me … my lack of classroom time is not your problem,” she said. I actually am one of the ones that want to do the job that no one else is signing up for.”

The hiring plan approved Tuesday calls for district officials to undertake a wide-ranging search, recruiting candidates from other school districts, from traditional schools of education, from historically black colleges — and from alternate certification programs.

These state-approved programs require little more from prospective teachers than a bachelor’s degree. One such program is Teachers of Tomorrow, a controversial for-profit entity that provides prospective teachers with an interim teaching certificate, after they complete only 200 hours of online instruction.

District officials are holding out hope that teachers who haven’t trained in a classroom will nonetheless be an improvement over the uncertified substitutes who currently occupy the district’s more than 200 vacant teaching positions. Vitti has said that the district would prefer to hire traditionally certified teachers exclusively, but that the realities of supply and demand make that impossible for now.

Among those following the debate was Dan Finegan, a 25-year-old Michigan native with a master’s degree in social work. He is among Teachers of Tomorrow’s inaugural cohort.  Finegan expects to start work as a Spanish teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District this fall.

Is he ready to teach? He says yes, but he mainly credits the year he spent volunteering as a tutor in Detroit schools. And he worries that others certified through Teachers of Tomorrow, which offers no student teaching opportunities, won’t know what to expect in the classroom.

“I would not feel ready if I had not worked” previously in Detroit schools, he said.

Finegan had nearly finished his master’s degree by the time he decided against a career in social work. He thought he’d prefer working as an educator and City Year Americorps, a non-profit that places volunteers in Detroit schools as tutors and classroom assistants, gave him a chance to test that theory.

PHOTO: Dan Finegan
Dan Finegan’s experience as a volunteer tutor in Detroit schools convinced him to sign up for Teachers of Tomorrow.

It didn’t take long for the students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School to convince Finegan that he should move to Detroit from the suburbs and become a Spanish teacher in the district. There was only one problem: He wasn’t certified to teach.

So when Teachers of Tomorrow gave a presentation to City Year volunteers, Finegan signed on. He considered other certification programs, but they were much more expensive, and Finegan was already saddled with student loans.

(Prices of alternative certification programs, which have fewer requirements than do traditional certification programs, vary widely. Wayne State’s Dream Keepers program charges current substitute teachers roughly $25,000 for two years of in-class support and training. A program at Schoolcraft College that offers night courses in Livonia costs about $10,000. Teachers of Tomorrow’s online program charges upwards of $5,000, but most of that  is due only after graduates find a teaching job.)

He completed the online coursework in about six weeks and passed the content-area exams to teach English and Spanish. He says he began hearing right away from schools who were turning to online Spanish courses because they couldn’t find a Spanish teacher to meet the state’s graduation requirements in world language.

After witnessing the effects of the teacher shortage in Detroit schools during his time with City Year, Finegan decided he would help fill the gap. He signed a provisional contract with a district school, a non-binding indication of that school’s intent to hire him.

With some additional training and a good review from their principal, educators with an interim teaching certificate can become fully certified after three years on the job.

“After my year of experience, it just became clear to me that I wouldn’t be happy in another district,” Finegan said, adding: “I want to show that I’m experienced, and I’m dedicated, and I’m qualified.”