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.

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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?”

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.