more money fewer problems

Detroit schools chief: District can now pay for counselors, arts classes, and gym in every school

After months spent talking about expensive new programs he’d like to see, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he’s found money in the Detroit district’s budget to hire a slew of educators who’ve been missing for years from city schools.

The budget framework he presented to a school board committee Friday calls for every city school to have a guidance counselor, an arts or music teacher, a gym teacher, and a “dean of school culture” who would be in charge of student discipline and creating in-school suspension programs.

Vitti’s proposals didn’t have specific dollar amounts attached, but provided a vision for how he wants to allocate the district’s money for next school year.

High schools would each have a graduation coach to make sure students are earning the credits they need to graduate in four years, are taking college entrance exams, or preparing for post-high school careers.

And every student in grades K-5 will get three field trips a year through a new “cultural passport program” as well as expanded sports programs in elementary and middle schools.

“Going to the Detroit Institute of Arts or to the Music Hall or to the zoo … all these activities will be part of the standard DPSCD experience that will be used to market our schools going forward,” Vitti said.

Vitti has said making the experience of attending district schools more appealing is one way he plans to draw more students and staff into the district.

He also told the school board’s finance committee that principals will work 12 months – up from 10 – after years of largely getting their summers off. That, Vitti said, will give them time to focus on recruiting students and teachers while their assistant principals run summer schools.

“I think principals need to start sharing the burden of recruiting,” Vitti said. “There was a culture of ‘Oh, that’s the district’s job.’”

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one. But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works to address the difficulties of recruiting new employees.

He told that committee that he hopes to make recruiting easier in the next few months by negotiating with the city teachers union the ability to pay higher salaries to experienced teachers who come from outside the district. Currently the contract won’t allow the district to pay new teachers any more than a beginner level salary, even if they’ve worked for a decade in another district or charter school.

Vitti also said he wants to make entering the district as a new hire easier. Some principals have complained that the hiring process is so laborious that candidates sometimes accept other offers while waiting for their contracts with the Detroit district to come through.

“You don’t have to go to this side of town to do the fingerprinting, then going to this side of town for the drug test,” Vitti said.

Vitti said the goal of his plan is “to make decisions and change some of our funding priorities while still being conservative to ensure sustainability,” and that “the budget is structured to prevent us from being in a place where we’re overspending.”

Vitti says the money would come from state funding from increased enrollment, federal grants, and money the district would save by combining the independent schools operating within three multi-school campuses: Mumford, Cody, and Crockett/Ben Carson campuses.

His plans to combine the schools on each campus to “reduce administrative costs and create singular leadership” would save the district roughly $2 million, he said.

The committee is expected to vote on the proposals later this month, and if approved, the plan could go before the full board in April, Vitti said.

Adding to school staff

  • School leadership: the district plans to have principals work year round, add an assistant principal to each school, and add a dean of culture to each school.
  • Instructional staff: the district wants to add two master teachers per school to coach teachers in English and math, better allocate teachers based on the most up-to-date count data, add at least one art or music teacher to each school, add gym teachers to each school, add education technicians to support reading and math interventions, and add personnel to support PreK to second grade.
  • Support staff: Adding at least one guidance counselor to each school, adding one graduation coach to each school, add a school culture facilitator to each school to facilitate in-school suspensions, add one attendance agent per school and add at least two clerical staff to each school.
Read the entire proposed budget framework below.



Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.

 

Parent voices

A parent hotline is among fixes promised for special education in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Hero Images
A program for students with special needs is moving to out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, one of several issues parents raised at a school board forum Wednesday night.

It is a stunning number: roughly one-sixth of students in Detroit’s main school district have learning disabilities or other special needs, compared with one-eighth of students statewide.

So it was no surprise that special education was a recurring theme at a sometimes boisterous community forum with parents in the Detroit Public School Community District.

Patricia Thornton enrolls her youngest son, who has autism, in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary.

She said teachers at the school were welcoming, but she worries they haven’t been adequately supported by the district to teach students with disabilities.

“They need some training,” she said.

The district on Monday will receive the results of an audit of its programs for children with special needs (as of last month, the district refers to “special education” as “exceptional student education”). Vitti invited Thornton to the event, promising that an improvement plan will be outlined.

“That will show you our plan of attack to improve systems across the system,” he said, adding that past administrations haven’t done much more for special education than keep up with federal requirements. “We haven’t had a vision beyond compliance,” he said.

An anonymous complaint hotline for teachers and parents is among the proposed solutions, Vitti said. As the district works to assign every classroom in the district by the fall a certified teacher, it will also focus on hiring adequate staff for special needs programs, he added.

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to provide adequate special education. A report issued by the lieutenant governor’s office last year said the state’s current funding formula shortchanges schools by almost $700 million a year.

Still, not every parent left the forum satisfied, although some of the concerns they raised had roots before Vitti started in Detroit over a year ago. Pansy Foster-Coleman’s lengthy experience with special education in Detroit began when she brought a federal lawsuit against the district in 1996, resulting in Cass Tech and other application-only high schools being opened to students with special needs, she told board members. As a parent, she said she saw the benefits of ATTIC, a program run by the countywide agency Wayne RESA,  that provides technology like speech aids and hearing devices to students with disabilities. Before Vitti’s arrival , the program was slated to be moved out of Detroit to Lincoln Park, whose school district also enrolls a high proportion of special needs students.

The prospect outraged Foster-Coleman, even after Vitti offered to meet with her and Wayne RESA officials.

Addressing parents at the meeting, she said, “You folks need to get together and sue somebody.”

Her comments were typical of a meeting that became raucous at times. Board members stood up several times to ask for calm after attendees raised their voices and talked over others in the room.

Partway through the meeting, an explanation for the fervor floated up from the back row.

“We are here for these kids, and we want to be acknowledged.”