Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surprised parents this week with plans to overhaul one of the city’s elite schools.

Starting next year, Bates Academy, a preK-8 school in Northwest Detroit that has long required students to pass an exam to get in, will get a more standardized set of admissions criteria and new curriculum designed for gifted students.

And, in a move that alarmed some parents, Vitti is doing away with the school’s longtime practice of teaching English classes that are a grade above what the students would take at another school. When news of the changes reached parents via robocall on Sunday, some worried that the school’s well-known academic program was in danger of being watered down. On Monday night, nearly 200 parents packed into the school cafeteria to pepper Vitti with questions about his plans.

“We have gifted and talented children at Bates, but we’re not using gifted and talented curriculum,” Vitti said. “Just moving a student up or exposing them to the next curriculum grade level is not gifted and talented.”

Instead, he plans train educators at the school to use teaching strategies designed specifically for gifted children. Although that won’t kick in until next year, Vitti is doing away with the school’s advanced coursework effective right away.

Rather than pushing students to their full potential, Vitti says the current program actually may hold some back.

While Bates is viewed as a feeder program for Detroit’s selective high schools, and its test scores are among the best in the city, scores released on Wednesday showed that fewer than 60 percent of its students passed the M-STEP English test for their actual grade level, suggesting that some students at the school were being taught advanced material before they had mastered the basics.

The new curriculum going into effect across the district this fall replaces badly outdated materials that were found to be hindering students’ progress in math and English. While pushing gifted students a grade ahead made sense in that context, Vitti told parents it could backfire when new more rigorous lessons are put in place.

He said that the new material will be “harder” for all students in the district,  and noted that it’s “highly likely” that students at Bates will struggle if they continue to work above grade level.

The highest-scoring students will still be placed in a separate classroom and given advanced coursework, Vitti said, but he argued that the approach doesn’t make sense for the entire school.

“I don’t believe accelerating their grade level is in their best interest,” he said. “Just randomly saying ‘this is a legacy issue, this is what we do at Bates,’ is not always right for your child.”

Changes to the gifted program aren’t the only shifts coming to Bates next year. Vitti told parents that changes to the admissions process will affect children applying for the 2019-20 school year. All the details aren’t yet in place, but Vitti said on Friday that admissions standards should be “consistently applied” to all children, echoing his administration’s criticism of the now-reformed admissions process at the district’s selective high schools.

Earlier this year, Vitti changed the way students are admitted to the district’s elite high schools, developing an evaluation system that gave students points for grades, scores on an admissions exam, letters of recommendation and an essay.  

Standing in front of parents the Bates cafeteria, he promised to organize a committee of teachers, alumni, and parents to design new admissions criteria in addition to the existing test. Though Bates has long used an exam to determine admissions, Vitti says it wasn’t being universally applied. He Likewise, there were no consistent standards for removing a student from Bates when they failed to meet the school’s academic, attendance, or behavior standards.

He also committed to hire more teachers and cap the number of students admitted to each class in an effort to lower the student-to-teacher ratio, which has ballooned as more an more students are admitted to the school. At present, classes in earlier grades tend to be about 18-to-1 — the ideal ratio, he said — but they increase to above 25-to-1 in fifth to eighth grades.

Many of the parents at the meeting Monday night voiced frustration about the changes at the school, and especially about the last-minute notification they got about Monday’s information session. Detroit Public Schools Community District schools start classes next week.

“I don’t agree with this,” said Tosha Padgett Johnson, who has a 7th-grade daughter attending Bates and an older daughter who graduated from Bates and is now a rising 10th grader at Cass Technical High School.

She said she will send her daughter back to Bates next week, but will keep  a close eye on how things progress. If they are not going well, she plans to pull her daughter from the school after the first semester and send her to a University Prep charter school or to the private Detroit Country Day School.

Teaching gifted students requires more than giving students advanced material, said Lori Lutz, associate director of the Roeper Institute, a non-profit that advocates for gifted students in the metro Detroit area.

“Acceleration is one tool for creating a gifted curriculum,” she said. “The other model would be enrichment. In enrichment, the curriculum looks different, it includes problem-based thinking and critical thinking skills.”

While Vitti plans to start a gifted program at Bates, it will not start until next year. In the meantime, parents can place their child in the next grade by signing a form, something Vitti strongly discourages.

Johnson said she planned to sign off on having her 7th-grade daughter using the 8th-grade curriculum.

Craig Smalls, a Renaissance High School teacher and a Bates graduate, received a loud applause when he told Vitti the process seemed rushed, and that parents weren’t given enough notice to absorb the changes. He also wanted to know whether teachers would be qualified to adapt the new curriculum for gifted children.

“What will this look like?” he asked.

Vitti assured the crowd that teachers have been trained to use the new curriculum. He also said Bates will be implementing more gifted and talented strategies, such as reducing repetition and rote assignments to allow for faster learning, grouping children with similar abilities together, and using specialized technology. Starting this year students will use a college-readiness computer software program, Achieve 3000. The program requires students to do more non-fiction reading, writing, and more analysis to answer questions.

The changes are coming too late for Jesse Hawkins, who said he moved his son from Bates to a private school because he wasn’t being academically challenged. Now he must decide whether to do the same for his daughter. After listening to Vitti explain the changes, he’s more optimistic.

“I’m confident in the new curriculum, the superintendent’s understanding from an cultural standpoint, an academic standpoint and even a business standpoint,” Hawkins said. “He addressed the key elements of a successful institution.”