School fight

In heated exchange with GOP lawmakers, Detroit schools chief Vitti defends stance on charters, property and grading schools

Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti testifies before the House Appropriations School Aid and Education Committee on Nov. 30, 2017.

If there was anyone in Detroit hoping that a new superintendent might improve relations between the city’s main school district and Lansing lawmakers, they should brace themselves.

In his first appearance before the legislature since taking over the Detroit schools last spring, schools chief Nikolai Vitti faced hostile questions from GOP lawmakers Thursday who accused him of “blatantly” violating several laws and grilled him on his dealings with charter schools.

Specifically, lawmakers on the House Education Reform committee criticized Vitti for not creating a legally required merit pay program for teachers and for not implementing an A-F grading system for Detroit schools that could be used to shutter the lowest-performing schools.

“You are intentionally violating the law,” said Rep. Daniella Garcia, a Republican from western Michigan who was one of the authors of legislation that sent $617 million to Detroit last year to create the new debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District.

That legislation included several measures that supporters said would ensure the money was being well spent, including the A-F grading system for Detroit schools. But the law spells out that the state’s School Reform Office is responsible for implementing that system, not Vitti or the district.

The law  — full text here — says that the letter grade system should apply to both district and charter schools. Vitti says he’s open to a letter grade accountability system but said he believes that system should apply to all Michigan schools, not just those in the Detroit. He said he didn’t think closing schools — like the 24 district schools that were threatened with closure last year under the same law — would improve education since few children were likely to land in better schools given the scarcity of quality options in the city.

On merit pay, he said he’s not opposed to basing teacher pay on performance but said he hasn’t yet negotiated a system with the teachers union for deciding how to determine which teachers will get extra pay.

Vitti also took heat for his vocal public battle with Detroit charter schools. Many GOP lawmakers are strong charter school backers and are allies of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who has used her family’s wealth to support charter schools and other choice options in Michigan.

The chair of the committee where Vitti was testifying is Rep. Tim Kelly who nearly left the legislature to work in Washington for DeVos. He lost the job earlier this month over offensive blog posts.

In the hearing Thursday, lawmakers took particular issue with Vitti’s refusal to sign off on the sale of a former district school to a local charter school.

The Detroit Prep Academy has been trying to buy the former Joyce Elementary School in the city’s Pingree Park neighborhood from a private developer who bought it from the school district in 2014.

The property has a deed restriction that requires the district to sign off any sale of the building in exchange for a cut of the proceeds — in this case $75,000. Vitti has refused to sign off on the sale, saying he first needs to conduct a city-wide review of school properties to determine where school buildings are needed.

“There are multiple schools in that area, traditional and charter, and there’s a question of whether there’s a need” for another school, Vitti told Chalkbeat after the hearing.

Signing off on the sale to Detroit Prep would “set a precedent with the court regarding our ability to determine the future of property owned by the local Detroit taxpayers. That’s ultimately the bigger issue here … We should be able to determine how our property will be utilized … that’s a fundamental right in American law.”

The charter school has filed a lawsuit against the district, which Garcia cited in questioning Vitti.

“You are not being fiscally responsible with the money we gave you to pursue a lawsuit,” Garcia said.

Kelly noted that lawmakers had passed a law barring deed restrictions on school buildings like the former Joyce school.

“The reality is that deed restrictions are illegal now,” Kelly said. “Whether you like them or not, it is state law.”

But Vitti questioned whether that law was enforceable and suggested he planned to fight it in court.

“I’m glad we have a court system,” he said.

After the hearing, Vitti said he doesn’t take the hostility personally.

“There’s a long history here that’s larger than me and a number of complicated issues,” he said.

He’s aware that the legislature has power over funding and policies but said he needs to be a forceful advocate for his district.

“If creating relationships and getting things done in Lansing means sacrificing the best interests of the district, I can’t do that,” Vitti said.

Vitti said he was glad to have a platform to share the work he’s doing, even if parts of the discussion were heated.

“I think they walked away with the impression that I’m skilled, that I have a track record and that I’m serious about reform but unfortunately with some members there’s an ideological gap.”

Kelly, who has been critical of the Detroit schools and has advocated for the district to be abolished, said lawmakers are “tired of having people disregard laws that we make.”

Though he acknowledged that the School Reform Office is tasked with setting up letter grades, not the district, he asserted that Vitti and the Detroit school board “are not helpful.”

“They don’t respect what goes on in Lansing,” Kelly told Chalkbeat after the hearing. “Not just Vitti, but their board. Everything has been adversarial … It’s unfortunate because this is the largest district in the state. They’re clearly using the largest majority of funds. And kids are there and these kids are not getting the education they deserve.” 

Watch the full recording of Vitti’s testimony here.


Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.