Bridging the divide

Will the Detroit district and charter schools agree to work together on busing and school grading as Mayor Duggan suggests?

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

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan believes he has found a way to bring together the city’s warring education factions — charter schools and the district.

In his state of the city speech Tuesday, Duggan announced two programs he says can unite the two — an experiment in joint bus routes, and an effort to give report cards to all schools in the city.

It’s unclear whether key players on the two sides will find common ground on the two efforts, but Duggan already has secured one key ally: Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Charter school leaders might be a harder sell. Charter schools as recently as two years ago fought a proposal to give the city some authority over district and charter schools, and the notion grading of schools has long been controversial.

Vitti lent his endorsement in his presence — he introduced the mayor before his speech and joined him again when it ended. Vitti has been vocal about viewing charter schools as competitors. He’s vowed in the past to put charter schools “out of business.”

But he said he’s on board with the mayor’s proposals — including the grading of schools.

“I feel much more comfortable working with the mayor and Detroiters and charter schools in Detroit on a grading system than one created in Lansing,” Vitti told Chalkbeat after the speech. “I believe that the public school system and its practitioners in charter schools have more in common in understanding the day-to-day reality of raising student achievement than the [Michigan Department of Education] does.”

Vitti has pushed back against school grading before. He came under fire from state lawmakers last year during his testimony before a House committee where he was skewered for, among other things, failing to create a grading system for Detroit schools that lawmakers say is required by state law. The law they were citing, however, calls on the state education department to create that grading system, not the school district.

Vitti told lawmakers at the time that he didn’t think there should be a grading system just for Detroit that didn’t apply to the rest of the state.

But now, he said, he hopes a Duggan-led grading system would “create a school grading system that’s more fair” than something developed by the state or the legislature that would apply to all schools including urban, suburban, and rural schools across the state.

“With the mayor’s political capital, we will be able to create something that reflects the reality of working with children in Detroit,” Vitti said.

He said he wants a grading system that would be “reflective of what our work looks like in Detroit because we are so unique and different from the rest of the state.”

Vitti said he’s also on board with the proposal to get some district and charter schools to join together on a bus route that would pick up students from designated stops and drop them at as many as 12 different schools, including both district and charter schools.

Charter schools likely have the most to gain from such a system because many charter schools do not provide busing, while many district schools do. But Vitti said he nonetheless supports the idea — especially in the area of northwest Detroit where Duggan has proposed to run the pilot effort.

“It targets an area where I think we have competitive schools,” Vitti said.

Vitti said the cost of the bus route — which would be split between schools, the city and philanthropy — would be low enough that the district would get its money back even if it picked up only a few new students as a result of its participation.

And the idea, he said, might open the door for the district to explore multi-school bus routes elsewhere in the city.

“There’s a way to be more competitive and … to share resources,” he said. “If it’s an environment where resources are shared to bring Detroiters back to the city, schools will be willing to put more resources into this.”

How the mayor’s plans will play in the charter community is less clear. Chalkbeat contacted eight charter leaders for their thoughts on Wednesday, and most declined to comment.

It was primarily charter school leaders — backed by now-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she was a Michigan philanthropist and activist — who fought an effort two years ago to create a mayoral-led commission focused on schools in the city.

The commission, which would have had some oversight over district and charter schools, was conceived as a way to bring order to Detroit’s splintered school system, which is nearly evenly split between district and charter schools. But some charter school leaders worried at the time that the commission would tip the scales in the district’s favor in Detroit’s heated school environment, in which district and charter schools compete aggressively for students and teachers and rarely work together.   

Several charter school leaders, however, say they are on board with Duggan’s plan to create bus routes that would serve both district and charter schools. Among them is Nicole Wells Stallworth, president of the board of MacDowell Prep, a charter on the proposed route.

Wells Stallworth said she supports the combined busing plans because it would make her school an easier choice for parents who live outside the school’s bus routes.

“It would increase our ability to capture more students who might not live in the three-mile radius,” she said.

The school currently pays the district for using its busing, and may stand to save money if two-thirds of the cost of transporting students were covered by philanthropy and the city.

Charter leaders who spoke to Chalkbeat said they support a report card grading system for schools, but have concerns about how whether the city’s measures might conflict with the ones already used by the state.

“Schools are state entities and, if the systems collide, that’s not a good thing — not for parents, schools, or the state,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “But I do believe we can meet the needs of the city and the state and align [the measurements.] It is essential to school success.”

Duggan said the charters and traditional schools were working together due in part to a bigger problem: currently more than 30,000 Detroit residents leave the city every day to attend district and charter schools in the suburbs.

The mayor views the two proposals laid out in his state of the city address as ways to bring some of those students home.

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.