Gifted and talented

Superintendent Vitti wants to overhaul an elite Detroit school. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Schools Community District
Starting next year, Bates Academy will get a new admissions process and a new approach to teaching gifted students.

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The new curriculum going into effect across the district this fall replaces badly outdated materials that were found to be hindering students’ progress in math and English.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.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 6 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.