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.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.