Superintendent search

Five reasons why Nikolai Vitti might be Detroit’s next superintendent — and three reasons he might not

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Jacksonville superintendent Nikolai Vitti appeared to be fading by the end of a grueling, 12-hour interview process on Wednesday in his bid to become Detroit’s next school superintendent.

After hours of answering similar questions, over and over, from teachers and students, then labor and business leaders, then parents and community members, then finally the school board that will make the crucial decision for Detroit schools, Vitti’s voice was starting to crack but he continued to express wild enthusiasm for the job in the city he called “home.”

“Since beginning in Jacksonville [in 2012], I’ve only applied to one job and that’s this job,” he told the Detroit school board Wednesday night at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. “I feel Detroit calling me.”

Vitti, who grew up in Dearborn Heights, has worked as a teacher and administrator in Winston-Salem, N.C., New York City, Miami and Jacksonville.

“I’ve been asking myself why am I doing this everywhere other than where I’m from,” he said. “I believe that Detroit needs me and I need Detroit.”

Vitti says he’s is so committed to Detroit and its schools, that if gets the job, he will “likely” enroll his four children in the district.

“It’s all a process,” he told reporters after his school board interview. “First I have to be offered the job but I would plan to live in city limits and would likely send my children to public schools.”

That’s a bold statement from someone who spent the day talking to people about the serious challenges facing the district. He said he was “enraged” to see the conditions of the Detroit schools he visited. What he saw “shook me,” he said. “To see that our children have to go to schools where there are holes in the walls, tiles that are not replaced.” But he still said he would try to find the right Detroit schools for his kids — including two who have dyslexia. Next fall, they will be in the eighth, seventh, fifth, and third grades.

“As I always say, it’s about finding the right match for your child and that would be something that we would have to investigate and look at,” he said. “If we find the right match for our children, then they would attend public schools. If it’s not the right match for many different reasons, then obviously that’s not the decision we would make.”

But will Vitti get the job?

That depends on a lot of things including how the only other finalist — River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman — performs during a similar 12-hour trial that’s scheduled for Monday. The board has also been under heavy pressure to expand the pool to include more candidates and to consider current district superintendent Alycia Meriweather. But Vitti has several things going for him, as well as several things working against him. Here’s a breakdown:

Five reasons he might get the job:

    1. He has experience running large urban districts. The 130,000-student, 200-school Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville is more than three times the size of Detroit’s district. (It’s 65 times the size of the 2,000-student, five-school River Rouge district.) “I’ve been through the rodeo and this work is a rodeo,” he told labor and business leaders Wednesday. “I’m offering a resume of someone who has done this work and created positive change for children.” He also said he’s done this without some of the more controversial approaches that have been used across the country. “I’ve never closed a school. I’ve never converted a school to a charter. I believe the work has to be owned by traditional public education. I have turned around schools by doing the work within the district.”
    2. He appears to be politically savvy. He delivered what seemed like the right answers to politically sensitive questions. He responded to a question from a union leader by touting that he comes “from a union family.” When asked about special education, he discussed his personal struggle with dyslexia and how that led him to create a specialized school in Jacksonville for students with dyslexia as well as a special school for kids with autism. And when a parent asked him a question in Spanish, he cut off her interpreter and translated the question for the rest of the room. “I could answer in Spanish,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be perfect and I’d rather just do it in English.”
    3. He thinks Detroit can save itself — without painful disruption. Vitti vowed to bring money into the district by luring Detroit children back from charter and suburban schools. “In Jacksonville, we reduced private enrollment [in Florida’s private school voucher system] by 120% by being competitive,” he said. In Detroit, he said, “we are going to compete. I say this not to make a statement of bravado but we are going to put charter schools out of business … because we’re going to offer a better product. We’re going to begin to tell our story and begin to bring parents back to our school system.”
    4. His political experience could help Detroit maintain its independence. As a former Florida deputy chancellor for school improvement, he claimed he has the political skills to fend off intrusions from state education officials like the state’s recent threat to close two dozen schools in the city. “I can speak the language of the state … I feel like I can go to Lansing and have the credibility to talk about what’s working and what’s not.”
    5. He offered creative solutions to some of Detroit’s most intractable problems. Among them: partnering with the business and banking community to create incentives to attract Detroit teachers such as low-cost mortgages or student loan forgiveness. “We have to think out of the box,” he said.

    Three reasons he might not get the job:

    1. He’s an outsider. Despite claiming that Detroit is “home,” he has never lived in the city of Detroit (just the metro area) and has never worked in Detroit schools. That’s in contrast to Coleman, who is a Detroit Public Schools grad and a former district official and to Meriweather who has spent her life and career in the district. Detroiters have been burned in the past by outsiders who’ve come to town from elsewhere to try to make a name for themselves, only to leave the schools worse off than they were. Vitti claims he would be here to stay. He’s asked for a five-year contract and said he hopes to stay longer than that. “One of the tragedies as far as the history of public schools in Detroit has been the sustainability of leadership and constant changes. Every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leader’s work so I think if we’re going to get this right here, we have to have sustainability in leadership.”
    2. His big ideas could face serious hurdles in Detroit. Vitti spent Wednesday touting programs he implemented in Jacksonville that could be brought to Detroit that will sound great to parents and educators: Expanding technology so that more kids have access to computers; making sure every school has arts and music programs; ending the city’s severe teacher shortage by paying teachers more and creating a teacher “pipeline” that starts in high school; adding mental health programs to schools to help kids deal with trauma; creating a parent academy to train parents to be more involved in their children’s education; supporting principals with smaller ratios between the school leaders and their supervisors; and better marketing for Detroit schools to help them lure kids from charter schools and the suburbs. He even talked up a literacy program he started in Jacksonville that gives new moms books engraved with their child’s name and the year he or she will graduate from high school as way of making sure parents believe their child will graduate.

      But all of those things cost money, and Detroit’s financial problems are notorious. Vitti noted that the per pupil funding rate in Florida is lower than in Michigan and that he uses a “zero-based budgeting” approach that helps him align budgets with school priorities, but some people who met him Wednesday remained skeptical. “I’m leaving with a wait and see impression,” said Deanne Surles, whose children attend the Bates Academy and who was representing the Detroit parent group 482 Forward. “In light of the fact that we have no money in Detroit, very limited resources, how can the strategies or the plans or the methods implemented there be replicated here?” Vitti also didn’t acknowledge some other challenges. He vowed to avoid closing schools but didn’t fully explain what the district should do with the thousands of classroom seats sitting empty in school buildings that enroll just a fraction of the students they were built to serve.

    3. He has ties to a national foundation.Vitti was asked at least three times on Wednesday about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the creation of the state-run Education Achievement Authority. Vitti is participating in a Broad school leader fellowship program that has been a training ground for a new breed of district leaders who prioritize holding educators and schools accountable for boosting student performance. It has produced some controversial Detroit figures like former emergency manager Robert Bobb. Vitti says he signed up for the Broad fellowship to expand his own skills as a school leader but that doesn’t mean he supports the foundation’s agenda including its strong support of charter schools and school choice. “I’m fiercely independent. No one tells me what to do,” he said, later adding that the Detroit emergency managers who participated in the Broad fellowship “were not educators. They were managers … I’m an educator. That’s all I’ve done and Broad does not define me.”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

Staying in school

Detroit students ‘making mistakes’ will get a second chance as district opens new alternative school

Detroit students whose discipline issues have proved too much for their schools to handle finally have a way to stay in school in the city.

Years after the district’s last alternative high school shut down, the Detroit school board on Tuesday voted to open a new school for students whose repeated violations of district rules could otherwise lead to a suspension or expulsion.

Located on the site of the former Catherine Ferguson Academy, the new school is part of a broader effort to overhaul discipline in the district, which meted out 16,000 suspensions last year. The movement to make schools less punitive followed concerns that zero-tolerance school discipline policies push children out of school and onto the streets.

Starting with the new school year, the rewritten code of conduct will require schools to show they’ve tried to improve a student’s behavior by means besides suspension, such as contacting a parent, before they can remove the student from school. The code also emphasizes restorative justice, a collection of practices that allows students to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.

The ultimate goal is to eradicate out-of-school suspensions entirely, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said. In the meantime, the alternative school will give students a place to learn when their home school throws up its hands.

“When students are making mistakes, and they’re given out-of-school suspension and not returning to school, that leads to [higher] dropout rates and to disengagement,” Vitti said. He noted that students who are given long suspensions often never return to school.

The new school will operate much like any other in the district, with a principal and teachers. It will also get a team of specialists — a dean of culture, an attendance agent, a school culture facilitator, a social worker, and a guidance counselor — to take on the non-academic problems that can underlie bad behavior.

Students would be referred to the school after repeatedly disrupting their home school, Vitti said. They would be placed at the alternative school only with their parents’ approval; otherwise, they would not attend school during the suspension.

Students would spend between three and six months at the school, leaving only after discussion between the principal and the parent. They might attend until the end of a semester, then return to their original school or a different school.

While some middle schools offer an alternative-school program, it hasn’t been available to high schoolers in years. The last alternative high school in the district — Detroit City High School — closed in 2013. Another, Barsamian Preparatory Academy, closed in 2012.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member, welcomed the district’s return to an alternative school model.

“Every child in the city of Detroit deserves to be educated, no matter what the barriers are,” she said.

She blamed cost-cutting efforts by state-appointed emergency managers for the disappearance of alternative programs, which are fully staffed but tend to be smaller than mainstream campuses. When Barsamian closed in 2011, 56 students were enrolled.

School districts across Michigan use alternative school programs, in part because they offer more focused attention to high-need students, said Wendy Zdeb, president of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

Students in these programs “are more likely to have small class sizes, and they’re more likely to have a curriculum that’s tailored to them,” she said.

The new school is expected to start small as the new code of conduct goes into effect this fall, Vitti said

It will be called Catherine Ferguson Alternative Academy, after the school for teen mothers that previously occupied the space, according to a school board document. Several years after the school closed amid a wave of cost cutting, the name still holds some luster left from the media spotlight that focused on the school’s high attendance and graduation rates.

In response to a question from Misha Stallworth, a board member, Vitti said at a committee meeting last month that he hopes to add a program for teen mothers but has not yet identified a school to house such a program.