staffing up

Sweetening the deal: Detroit considers dangling extra cash to hire 150 teachers

PHOTO: Aliyah Moore
Parents at Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy say a teacher shortage is to blame for the 42 kids in a second-grade class.

After weeks of struggling to hire enough teachers, Detroit’s main school district is now looking for new ways to lure them in.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he’s working with the city teachers union to negotiate incentives that might convince certified teachers to take “hard-to-staff positions.”

The incentives — which would need union approval — would benefit new teachers as well as current ones.

“We know that in order to go deeper with staffing, we’re going to have to offer a set of incentives at particular schools that have been more challenging,” Vitti said.

The details are still being worked out, he said, but the district is focused on attracting special education teachers and those who will teach core subjects like reading, math, science and social studies.

The district has hired about 100 teachers since the first day of school to bring the number of vacancies down to 150, Vitti said.

Over 300 have been hired since July, he said. “We know we can bring them into Detroit. We just obviously need more time to go out and recruit.”

Teachers union leader Ivy Bailey said the district has long offered bonuses to teachers working in critical shortage areas but the new incentive program would be more extensive.

The union is open to the idea, she said. “We’re committed to increasing student achievement and we know that to do that, we’ve got to fill these vacancies with qualified teachers.”

For now, most of the classrooms without certified teachers are being staffed by long-term substitutes, Vitti said.

But there are also classrooms around the city where the shortage has forced teachers to take on 40 or 50 students.

Among schools facing that challenge is the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on the city’s west side. Last year Chalkbeat visited a classroom at the school where 37 first-graders were crammed in together without breaks for music or art or gym.

This year, those first graders are in a second-grade class that has 42 students — and the school still doesn’t have an art teacher.

“It’s just frustrating,” said parent leader Aliya Moore whose daughter Tyliya is in that class. 

“I’m constantly hearing that teacher holler,” said Moore who sent Chalkbeat a photo of the crowded classroom. “She’s trying to gain the attention of all those students and instructional time is constantly getting broken up because she has to tell a child to be still, to sit, to ‘put that down.’ She’s an excellent teacher but the load is just too high.”  

Vitti said he was aware of that classroom and others like it but said the district is now starting to level classrooms so that schools with too many kids will get more teachers from schools that had lower-than-expected enrollment.

School advocates worry that leveling takes so long that some parents will get impatient and remove their children, ultimately hurting the school when its budget is reduced because of declining enrollment. But in a city where many families spend September figuring out where their children will go to school, the district has typically waited weeks to start moving teachers.

Not every school has the space to create another classroom, Vitti said.

“It’s not as simple as saying they need another teacher,” he said. “Now that we have enrollment settled, we can do the analytics to define the problem and come up with solutions.”

Moore says she believes it’s not likely that another teacher will come to Paul Robeson Malcolm X. She said the school principal told her on Thursday that because the school has an elective class in which kids learn to create African-inspired art and poetry — part of the school’s African-centered curriculum — it technically has enough teachers for its current enrollment.

She fears that elective will be canceled to reduce the size of the second grade but Vitti stressed that the district will not cancel elective classes linked to a school’s mission.

Principal Jeffery Robinson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of that class.

Chrystal Wilson, a district spokeswoman, said the district conducted a preliminary review of staffing levels at the school and found that the “school’s schedule indicates that the principal can address the class size issue by maximizing all certified teachers as other schools have tried to do.” 

Once that has been done, she said, the district “will revisit the school’s allocation.”

In addition to considering incentives to hire teachers now, Vitti said he’s also planning for long-term recruitment. He’s having conversations with colleges like Wayne State University about placing more student teachers in Detroit schools this spring in hopes that they’ll come work for the district when they graduate.

“We need to have an active pipeline for teachers,” he said.

The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”