the hot seat

Five minutes in the hot seat: For Detroit school principals, there’s ‘nowhere to hide’ in new district data chats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti (center) has been summoning district principals to discuss their schools at "data chats" attended by their colleagues and bosses. "This is the work," Vitti said. “You’re constantly problem solving. You're surfacing issues … and you’re looking at data to make decisions.”

Taking her seat at the end of a long table, the leader of a Southwest Detroit elementary school was clearly rattled by the bad luck of having been called first.

“Good morning,” she said, as she glanced down at her notes, then up at the colleagues and bosses who stared back at her from around the hot and crowded room.

“Sorry, I’m very nervous,” she said through a shaky voice before launching into a list of facts about her school.

Enrollment is up and student behavior is trending in the right direction, she said. But reading scores are down and more than half of her students missed enough days of school last year to be considered “critically” absent.

Also, she said, the city’s teacher shortage had made it tough for her to fill three vacant teaching positions this year, and she had only found long-term substitutes for two of those jobs. That means that in addition to having far too many students with no access to a qualified teacher, she’d had classrooms with as many as 47 6th and 7th graders for months.

“We’re very happy that we are no longer parents’ last choice of where to put their child,” she said, referring to her school’s higher enrollment. “But I want to be able to provide the proper environment.”

Listening as she gave that assessment of her school’s challenges were more 30 other principals from the Detroit Public Schools Community District, most of the district’s top administrators, and a man, sitting on the opposite end of the table, who could fire her if he doesn’t like what he hears: Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Since taking over the Detroit schools in May, Vitti has been busy assembling a team of advisors, overseeing the creation of a strategic plan and trying to rebuild some of the operational systems that he says were dismantled during the years when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

The principal sessions, which he calls data chats, are part of his first major effort to improve the quality of instruction in classrooms.

The goal, Vitti told the principals who, one by one, have taken a turn at the end of the table in recent weeks, is not to criticize school leaders, or to shame them over problems they can’t fully control.

The goal is to figure out what schools need — and find ways for the district to support them.

“I don’t want you to feel on any level that this is an ‘I got you,’ Vitti told a roomful of anxious principals before the start of a recent data chat. “This is another step in trying to improve the relationship between the school district and schools. This is about creating a culture with a focus on performance.”

And principals will not be the only ones on the hot seat. The data chats will take place several times a year, he said, sometimes with principals presenting and other times with district officials at the end of the table.

“No one is going to want to come into this room at the beginning of February and know that a principal asked for something and there was no response,” Vitti said.

The sessions, he said, are a way to sharpen the focus of everyone who has a hand in educating Detroit’s district students.

“This is the work,” Vitti said at the end of a marathon session earlier this month that began at 8 am in a 10th floor conference room in the district’s Fisher Building headquarters and didn’t end until long after the sun had set. “You’re constantly problem solving. You’re surfacing issues … and you’re looking at data to make decisions.”

Principals reported they were nervous before presenting data on their schools to a room crowded with district educators including Superintendent Nikolai Vitti (right). “It forces everyone to be honest about the work because everyone is in the room,” Vitti said.

***

Vitti used a version of data chats like these in Miami and Jacksonville, the two Florida school districts where he worked before coming to Detroit, he said.

The idea came initially from Rudy Crew, the superintendent Vitti worked for in Miami. Crew had been schools chancellor in New York City in the 1990s where he saw the police department use crime data to deploy resources through a program called CompStat.

CompStat, which is often credited with the steep decline in crime rates in New York that began in the 1990s, tracks surges in car thefts, assaults and other crimes by neighborhood, time of day and other factors. Police commanders from across the city are then summoned to regular CompStat meetings to explain what’s happening in their precincts and what they’re doing to respond.

Vitti said he worked with Crew to develop data chats in Miami, then brought the concept with him to Jacksonville when he became superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools.

As he starts them in Detroit, Vitti said, the chats looks somewhat different — at least for now.

While in Florida a complex school grading system based on multiple layers of test score data had forced principals to “become more savvy about student performance, analyzing data, talking through school improvement strategies,” Detroit principals aren’t as used to diving deeply into student data, Vitti said. The culture of “analyzing data, talking about your data,” he said, has not yet taken hold.

That was evident during a data chat session attended by Chalkbeat. Several principals said their schools had seen an increase in test scores this year when, in reality, their scores had climbed just one or two percentage points — a change so small it might not have much meaning.

“We have to be careful with that,” Vitti told one principal, stopping her presentation to address the room. “Sometimes when we see a 1 percentage point increase, a 2 percentage point increase, sometimes that’s not statistically significant.”

Since the students who took the third grade reading test last year are not the same kids who took it this year, “that can artificially change your increase or your decrease so we have to become more mindful of those factors,” Vitti said.

That doesn’t mean Vitti was critical of principals who made those claims.

“It’s really not fair to have a principal sit there and me grill them on very specific performance-related issues because the culture wasn’t established to build capacity and hold people accountable,” he said.

It also wouldn’t be fair to expose principals at their first data chats to public scrutiny, he said. That’s why Vitti set ground rules allowing this reporter to attend the chats only if she agreed not to identify principals in connection with their presentations.

Principals attending the session said they had been worried when they heard they would have to present in front of a room full of other principals.

“I have to admit I was nervous, you know having that dream where you’re coming in with bare feet,” said Gina Brown who leads the Ronald Brown Academy, an elementary-middle school on the city’s east side. “But I think it’s an excellent process because it gives me a chance as a principal to sit back and really learn something about what other schools are doing. I’ve been taking copious notes.”

The district had been led in recent years by five different emergency managers, including some Brown said she rarely heard from. She welcomed the chance to have an open discussion about her school.

“To have the deputy superintendent and the superintendent sitting right here is really helpful,” she said. “All the main players are sitting at the table.”  

And principals in the room could get immediate responses to some of their concerns — if not necessarily a swift resolution.

As school leaders mentioned problems — like one who said the hole in her school’s roof was threatening to damage computer equipment, and another who said her students were in “dire need” of workbooks in multiple subjects and grades — Vitti pressed the district officials charged with meeting those needs for a response.

“It is empowering, I think, for principals to be in a room with their peers but also to have the ear of the superintendent and the cabinet to say, ‘This is working, this isn’t working,’” Vitti said. “So it’s accountability on multiple levels … It forces everyone to be honest about the work because everyone is in the room.”

“In this room,” he told the principals at the start of the session, “there is nowhere to hide — for the principal and the cabinet.”

 

* * *

With so many school leaders in the room, Vitti used the opportunity to poll principals on a range of subjects.

He asked the heads of elementary-middle schools whether they want to continue serving kids in so many grades or if they’d prefer separate elementary or middle schools (most wanted to stay the way they are). He asked princals who mentioned high suspension rates if they’d want to create in-school suspension programs rather than send students home for poor behavior (most liked that idea). And he asked whether principals like requiring students to wear uniforms (most said they do).

Each principal officially had five minutes for his or her data chat — measured by a timer projected on a screen behind Vitti in the conference room — but the timer was paused whenever Vitti or other officials stopped to ask questions or make comments. That meant most principals presented for between 10 and 20 minutes.

Vitti asked principals what they’d like their schools to become — part of his push to give every school in the district a unique identity that could give families a reason to enroll.

Several said they wanted a science and technology focus. One principal asked for a focus on foreign languages, while some asked for arts programs.

“We could become the “Frida Kahlo School of the Arts,” said one principal who thought the name of that iconic Mexican painter would attract the Mexican families in his school’s neighborhood.  

Vitti questioned principals who had been successful in filling teacher vacancies about the tools they had used for recruiting (most said teacher word of mouth was their best bet). He asked a principal who had reduced chronic absences how she had done that. (She raised money for a washing machine so kids who had been staying home for want of a uniform would have something clean to wear to school).

And he noted that many princials had discovered the same thing in their testing data: that their scores on a test, called the MAP, which measures how well individual students are improving academically from one year to the next, had been going up, while their scores on the state’s standardized M-STEP, which determines whether kids are performing at grade level, had dropped.

“Like everyone else I’ve seen today, my scores are surprisingly low,” one principal said. “We seem to fare much better on the MAP in every subject area. Why there’s that disconnect, why they don’t do better on the M-STEP….”

Vitti cut her off.

“I’ll just tell you what the answer is,” he said. “The answer is that MAP is not aligned to the Common Core Standards at the highest level, which means it’s not aligned to the M-STEP… so MAP is giving you a false read.”

The fact that the district had been using MAP test results as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations in recent years could explain why so many schools had been struggling with the M-STEP, Vitti said.

Vitti encouraged principals to hold smaller-scale versions of these chats in their own schools.

“It’s a way to rally everyone around a common goal,” he said. “You then create a culture that’s focused on data. Everyone knows where individual children are … and everyone is rallying and being strategic.”

School leaders might be reluctant to put their teachers in the position of having to discuss their students in front of their peers.

But educators are all in the public eye and should know how to explain their work, he said.

“This may feel like you’re on the hot seat for five minutes but the reality is all of you are on the hot seat all the time,” Vitti told principals. “You are all dramatically responsible for what happens in your building every day. I’m on the hot seat all the time, whether that’s with the media, whether that’s parents at a community meeting, whether that’s board members, or the legislature, I’m constantly having to talk about what happened in the past, where we’re going, and what that looks like.”

The data chats, he said, are about about raising the standards for kids.

“This really is about 360 degrees of accountability,” Vitti said. “When we look at this data and we see where our children are at, we all know that they can do better. If we don’t start changing the way we operate and the way we work as schools, as a district … then why are we here?”

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.