meet the new boss

Q&A: New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti is looking for a city house, schools for his kids, and — maybe — a ‘fit’ for Alycia Meriweather

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students on the first day of school in Duval County, Florida in 2016. He was selected in 2017 to lead Detroit schools.

Detroit’s next schools superintendent plans to arrive in the city as soon as May 22 and has a long to-do list for his first few weeks.

Among priorities: Finding a house in the city, checking out schools for his four children and — possibly — finding a role for interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather in his new administration.

“I’ve been impressed with the work that she’s done as interim superintendent,” Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat in a phone interview Saturday, a day after the Detroit school board approved a five-year contract that will pay him $295,000 in his first year and up to $322,000 in later years.

“I think she has been a great ambassador for the city and the district and the children and I believe there’s a place for her on the team,” he said. “I just have to get to know her better and understand the right fit for her.”

Meriweather, who has been a popular interim superintendent, had broad support from teachers, parents and administrators when she applied for the permanent job. Her supporters were angry when she was wasn’t included among the finalists.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday. Vitti said the two have not yet met.

The school board last month chose Vitti to run the 40,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District. He is currently the superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. His last day on the job there will be May 21.

Vitti’s contract formally begins on July 1 but the Dearborn Heights native said he would arrive in Detroit early the week of May 22nd.

He’ll be bouncing back and forth between Detroit and Jacksonville as his children finish out the school year in Florida. His goal, he said, is to permanently move his family to Michigan in mid-June.

“The first couple of weeks for me will be focused on engagement with district staff, school staff — including principals and teachers — and then external engagement with parents and elected officials at the city and state level to really understand what’s working and what we need to do differently.”

Vitti said he plans to live in the city, not the suburbs, and hopes to enroll his four elementary- and middle-school-aged children in public schools. But the fact that two of them have dyslexia could complicate his school search, he said.

“It’s just a matter of finding the right match,” he said. “A couple of my children have … special needs and I want to make sure it’s the right fit at that level.”

In Jacksonville, Vitti created a special school for children with dyslexia (as well as one for kids with autism) and said he’d eventually like to do something similar in Detroit.

“Most public schools systems don’t have the kinds of services that are really about meeting dyslexic learners’ individual needs,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that is specific to Detroit.”

A school for dyslexic learners would not only serve Detroit kids, he said. He believes such a school could be a draw for families from around the region who are looking for a specialized program.

“Statistically, 1 in 5 children face dyslexia and that number can be even greater for those growing up in poverty,” Vitti said. “Their needs are not met even more because they’re growing up in poverty.”

The Detroit district has many challenges including a severe teacher shortage that will need to be addressed but Vitti said he’ll set priorities over the next few weeks based on what he learns as he gets to know the district.

“I really want to hear from people in the district,” he said. “I really look forward to getting out to schools and setting aside some time to meet with teachers and hearing directly from them about what’s working, what’s not and what we need to do differently.”

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.

Certified — but ready?

Detroit schools will hire teachers without classroom experience, sparking debate

PHOTO: Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University's traditional teacher certification program is on the list of teacher pipelines for Detroit's main district. So are alternative programs with far fewer requirements. At an EMU hiring fair, teachers said they are having no trouble finding jobs.

Detroit’s main district is proceeding with a plan to hire teachers who are certified but have received no training in the classroom — adding an element of controversy to efforts to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies by the end of summer.

The board of education on Tuesday approved a hiring plan proposed by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, signaling that the district will lean partly on programs that offer so-called interim teaching certificates.

The move drew blowback from board members and parents, who argued that Detroit children deserve teachers who have been trained in the classroom.

“I don’t think the alternative route teachers are nearly as prepared as the traditional route,” LaMar Lemmons, a school board member, told Chalkbeat. “It will increase the academic disparity, as you have less qualified and less experienced teachers.”

Online, where much of the debate over district hiring practices took place, some parents worried that teachers with interim certificates would be unprepared to manage a classroom.

“So your first day of teaching will be your first day ever in front of children?” Cynthia Jackson, a Detroit parent, wrote on Chalkbeat Detroit’s Facebook page. “You don’t think that’s going to be a problem?”

For others, the news that the district will consider candidates with alternative certifications was a call to action. Nikki Key, a Detroit parent who has a master’s degree in business, commented on Facebook that the teacher shortage has her considering a career in education.

“I’ve seen what is being offered to our children, trust me … my lack of classroom time is not your problem,” she said. I actually am one of the ones that want to do the job that no one else is signing up for.”

The hiring plan approved Tuesday calls for district officials to undertake a wide-ranging search, recruiting candidates from other school districts, from traditional schools of education, from historically black colleges — and from alternate certification programs.

These state-approved programs require little more from prospective teachers than a bachelor’s degree. One such program is Teachers of Tomorrow, a controversial for-profit entity that provides prospective teachers with an interim teaching certificate, after they complete only 200 hours of online instruction.

District officials are holding out hope that teachers who haven’t trained in a classroom will nonetheless be an improvement over the uncertified substitutes who currently occupy the district’s more than 200 vacant teaching positions. Vitti has said that the district would prefer to hire traditionally certified teachers exclusively, but that the realities of supply and demand make that impossible for now.

Among those following the debate was Dan Finegan, a 25-year-old Michigan native with a master’s degree in social work. He is among Teachers of Tomorrow’s inaugural cohort.  Finegan expects to start work as a Spanish teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District this fall.

Is he ready to teach? He says yes, but he mainly credits the year he spent volunteering as a tutor in Detroit schools. And he worries that others certified through Teachers of Tomorrow, which offers no student teaching opportunities, won’t know what to expect in the classroom.

“I would not feel ready if I had not worked” previously in Detroit schools, he said.

Finegan had nearly finished his master’s degree by the time he decided against a career in social work. He thought he’d prefer working as an educator and City Year Americorps, a non-profit that places volunteers in Detroit schools as tutors and classroom assistants, gave him a chance to test that theory.

PHOTO: Dan Finegan
Dan Finegan’s experience as a volunteer tutor in Detroit schools convinced him to sign up for Teachers of Tomorrow.

It didn’t take long for the students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School to convince Finegan that he should move to Detroit from the suburbs and become a Spanish teacher in the district. There was only one problem: He wasn’t certified to teach.

So when Teachers of Tomorrow gave a presentation to City Year volunteers, Finegan signed on. He considered other certification programs, but they were much more expensive, and Finegan was already saddled with student loans.

(Prices of alternative certification programs, which have fewer requirements than do traditional certification programs, vary widely. Wayne State’s Dream Keepers program charges current substitute teachers roughly $25,000 for two years of in-class support and training. A program at Schoolcraft College that offers night courses in Livonia costs about $10,000. Teachers of Tomorrow’s online program charges upwards of $5,000, but most of that  is due only after graduates find a teaching job.)

He completed the online coursework in about six weeks and passed the content-area exams to teach English and Spanish. He says he began hearing right away from schools who were turning to online Spanish courses because they couldn’t find a Spanish teacher to meet the state’s graduation requirements in world language.

After witnessing the effects of the teacher shortage in Detroit schools during his time with City Year, Finegan decided he would help fill the gap. He signed a provisional contract with a district school, a non-binding indication of that school’s intent to hire him.

With some additional training and a good review from their principal, educators with an interim teaching certificate can become fully certified after three years on the job.

“After my year of experience, it just became clear to me that I wouldn’t be happy in another district,” Finegan said, adding: “I want to show that I’m experienced, and I’m dedicated, and I’m qualified.”