Rebuilding trust and filling classrooms: What Detroiters say new schools chief Nikolai Vitti should tackle first
Nikolai Vitti, the Florida school leader selected this week to run Detroit schools faces many steep challenges. Among the most daunting: He’ll be working with people who wanted someone else to get the job.
“Educators wanted Alycia Meriweather,” said Andrea Jackson, a college advisor at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, an eastside high school.
Meriweather has led the district as interim superintendent for over a year and had been the top choice of many district administrators, community leaders, and city teachers. She was eliminated from consideration last month when the board decided it wanted someone with at least three years of superintendent experience.
That decision sparked angry protests, but the board moved ahead with interviewing two finalists and Tuesday night voted to negotiate a contract with Vitti for the top job.
“Dr. Vitti should work side by side with Meriweather as Assistant Superintendent,” the district’s teachers union said in a statement about the appointment that focused first on its disappointment that she had not been considered.
“With that said,” the union’s statement continued, “we look forward to working with Dr. Vitti. The district is faced with several important issues: contract negotiations with labor unions, the return of Education Achievement Authority schools, budget stability, retaining staff, and filling teaching vacancies.”
Indeed, when Vitti starts by July 1, he’ll face a long to-do list — and pressure from educators, students and community leaders to make his priorities match their own. Here’s what some say he should focus on:
Meriweather has said she wants to stay in Detroit to keep working for its students, and the new superintendent is “going to have to come and work with her. Period,” Jackson said. “You cannot come into a city like this and be an effective leader without the voice of the community and support of the community and it would be a significant blow if he did not work side-by-side with Alycia Meriweather.”
And if Meriweather is not personally involved in the new administration, many Detroiters are urging the new superintendent to make her ideas and plans a part of his agenda.
“I have heard repeatedly from teachers and principals, current and retired, over and over again, how [this year under Meriweather] is the first time in years that people have a sense of optimism and hope in a DPS superintendent,” said Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit city councilwoman who leads a voter education organization and community action group called CitizenDetroit.
The new superintendent, she said, “should start by reaching out to teachers and acknowledging and appreciating the level of disappointment that’s coming from them and from many parents and attempt to offer an agenda that will …begin to build the level of trust that Superintendent Meriweather was able to build,”
Meriweather did not respond to a request for comment. But people who’ve followed her work say the new superintendent should be careful about coming in with his own agenda and tearing up work she’s done.
“He is going to have to rally the troops,” said Tanisha Manningham, the principal of Denby High School on Detroit’s east side, which is returning to the main Detroit district this summer. “He’s going to have to earn their trust and [that means] maybe looking at what Alycia started and maybe not totally disrupting that.”
Addressing the teacher shortage
The district has more than 200 vacant teaching positions — forcing schools across the city to cram far too many students in far too few classrooms.
“There are always over 45 kids in my classes and there are only 30 desks,” said Alondra Alvarez, 17, a junior at Western International High School in southwest Detroit where she said students pull up two chairs to every desk and struggle to pay attention. “It’s so loud,” she said, “and my teacher tries to have a lot of control but it’s hard.”
One way to recruit more teachers is to pay them more, said Ivy Bailey, head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which is currently negotiating a new contract with Meriweather that the new superintendent will have to execute. The average Detroit teacher made $57,793 last year, putting district salaries behind many suburban districts and charter schools.
But attracting and retaining teachers goes beyond pay, Bailey said, especially after years in which state-appointed emergency managers imposed many changes in the district.
“People are very distrusting and rightfully so,” she said. “The challenge is going to be creating trust and respect.”
She added, “We need to raise student achievement but you can’t come in here with an iron fist to get that done. … They are always trying to do something to teachers without teacher input.”
Manningham, the principal at Denby, added that the new superintendent should find ways to pay bonuses to help bring teachers’ salaries up to the level of their suburban colleagues and should look for ways to help teachers improve their skills and advance in their careers.
Jackson said even small gestures would help.
“They have to create business partnerships to send teachers out to dinner, out to lunch,” she said. “We need to be rewarded after 18 years with no raise … We need a DPS teacher appreciation program. Teachers and staff are DPS’ biggest resources and the district can’t sustain itself with a constant turnover of teachers and staff.”
Improving student attendance
Detroit schools have one of the highest rates of chronically absent students in the country. Meriweather told the school board earlier this year that a stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — more than 23,000 kids — missed two or more days of schools per month, making it difficult for educators to have much impact.
Manningham said absent students are the biggest challenge she faces at Denby and called on the new superintendent to look into expanding school bus transportation.
“We don’t provide yellow buses in high school and a lot of time [city buses] are running late or buses don’t show up,” she said.
Devising creative solutions
Manningham called on the new superintendent to use “courageous creativity” to manage schools. She said principals should be given flexibility to adapt their budgets and curricula to allow for innovations that would help their students.
She suggested, for example, that Vitti create a more streamlined system of dual credit programs that let kids earn high school and college credits at the same time. Some dual credit programs exist now in the district, but they’re limited to certain schools and not part of a citywide connection with local colleges.
At many city schools, budget cuts have squeezed out many of the “extras” that make school engaging for students. The new superintendent should “focus on reopening the swimming pools, marching band, arts, music, dance, and home economics programs to increase career opportunities for students,” Jackson said.
These programs would “increase college scholarship opportunities for students and decreases fights, conflicts and negative behaviors among students,” she said.
Adding more counselors
To help schools meet students’ needs, the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. Few if any Detroit schools achieve that level of staffing — meaning that students’ considerable needs are not always addressed.
“We need a lot more counselors,” said Alvarez, the Western International student. “I go to school with 2,000 kids and there’s only three counselors to turn to … They have to fix your schedule and be there to talk with you but with 2,000 kids, counselors are stressed out themselves.”
Maintaining tight financial controls
The legislative maneuver last summer that created a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District freed Detroit schools from debilitating historic debt, but low enrollment continues to harm the district financially.
The new superintendent needs to have a “very clear strategy to ensure that the financial resources are in the classrooms for the purpose of educating children,” said Cockrel of CitizenDetroit.
Attracting more families to the district will require a mix of all of the above, plus stronger programs that would give families a reason to trust that the district is improving. Vitti promised during his public interview to try multiple strategies to woo back families that have departed for charter and suburban schools.
Jackson called on the new superintendent to try marketing the rebranded district. He should promote “the good news of previous successful students doing well after K-12,” she said. “What’s currently happening in DPSCD and what’s to come. This will automatically increase enrollment.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.