Caps and gowns

Unsatisfied with Detroit ‘college-readiness’ rate, Vitti lays out ideas for changing the district’s culture

PHOTO: Getty images
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has a plan to help more students prepare for college Photo Credit: Getty Images

Detroit high school students could soon have access to makeup courses, more guidance counselors, and color-coded wristbands signifying their skills, according to ideas that schools chief Nikolai Vitti laid out Monday to boost the district’s graduation rate.

More than three quarters of students in Detroit’s main district graduated on time last year, but the rate was unchanged from 2016, even as the statewide graduation rate rose. And just 12 percent of Detroit students were considered “college-ready,” with more of them dropping out, as well.

That’s not acceptable to Vitti, who told the district school board’s academic committee on Monday that he would be taking steps to create a “college-going culture” in the district. Those steps include updating the district’s data tracking system to more closely follow students’ progress, reducing a counselor shortage by hiring more “college ready” and guidance counselors, and offering classes designed to help students catch up when they are falling behind so they can graduate on time.

“We want all our students to graduate, whether it’s four, five, or six years,” Vitti said. “But we certainly want to create the expectation and culture that they graduate in four years.”

That includes making sure students are prepared for the more difficult work they are likely to encounter in college, Vitti said.

“When children are not college ready, even when they are accepted into college, they often have to take remediation courses, which frustrates them from progressing through college,” Vitti told the committee that considers proposed policies before they reach the full school board.

“It depletes their ambition and inspiration about going to college,” he said, “and it feels like they are going to high school again.”

Vitti’s vision for getting more Detroit students to succeed after high school includes detecting earlier when students are falling behind in high school. He said he wants the board to adopt a new data tracking system for the 2018-19 school year to make that possible.

“We are looking for a more modern information system which will then give counselors, principals, assistant principals, [and] college advisors stronger data and better tools to problem solve regarding what students are behind as far as credits, and who has not passed yet the SAT or the ACT with a college readiness score,” Vitti said.

That data system, he said, would support “early warning tools” so that students who are at risk of not graduating can get mentors as early as ninth grade.

“We can start to intervene and we’re not waiting until their fourth year or senior year, but we’re intervening as early as the ninth grade year or the beginning of the 10th-grade year so we can have more students graduating on time,” he said.

And even in the midst of a statewide counselor shortage, Vitti said he’s inclined to find private funding to open more counselor positions, although he’s concerned about not being able to fill them with qualified, state-certified professionals. With new counselors dedicated to college guidance, guidance counselors can focus on working with students on the day-to-day challenges they may experience, he said.

Boosting Detroit students’ graduation and college-success rates isn’t just a matter of adding new resources and opportunities, he said. It’s also a question of culture — one that he said could be addressed with ideas such as color-coded wristbands students can proudly wear to display they are high achievers in reading and other subjects. The awards would encourage students to become more motivated to succeed, Vitti said.

“We can promote it through celebrations and recognition, and make it competitive around the school,” the superintendent said. “Those are the systems we need to develop here.”

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”