Superintendent search

Ten things to know about Detroit superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit schools, speaks in a video in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was superintendent before coming to Detroit.

The search for Detroit’s next schools superintendent enters the next stage on Wednesday with the first of two public interviews with the finalists for the job.

The candidate on the hot seat Wednesday is Nikolai Vitti, a Dearborn Heights native who is now superintendent of the 130,000-student Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. The district is more than three times the size of the Detroit district, which now enrolls around 40,000 students.

Vitti will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Wednesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes a visit to Thirkell Elementary Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at the Breithaupt Career & Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

A second finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, will go through a similar process on Monday. Despite community pressure, the district’s current interim superintendent is not a finalist and will not be interviewed.

Before the action begins, here are ten things to know about Vitti:

  1. He grew up in Dearborn Heights, the son of Italian immigrants.
  2. He played football at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, later getting graduate degrees in education at Harvard.
  3. His history as someone who has struggled with dyslexia a challenge also faced by his two sons — has led him to highlight the needs of students with learning disabilities. Those efforts earned him an award from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  4. Vitti presides over a district labeled the most dangerous in Florida but faces far fewer challenges than Detroit does.
  5. He appears to have found a middle ground in a polarized education reform landscape. On the one hand, he has invoked the language of teachers as “widgets” that came out of a seminal 2009 report that advocated for weighing student performance in teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation decisions, and he replaced 30 percent of principals early in his tenure in Duval County, saying that they were underperforming. But he has advocated for the arts and evaluating performance beyond test scores.
  6. He says he has learned a lesson that some hard-charging reformers took a while to absorb: that having a strong curriculum is as important as getting strong educators into the classroom. “This has been an evolution for me. I have traditionally put more of my eggs in the leadership-development category and in the direct support of teachers through coaching. That’s still a relevant investment,” he said in an October 2016 conversation with an education leader. “But as I’ve gone through this process and evolved as a leader and a thinker, I would put my eggs more in the curriculum basket than I ever would have before.” In Duval County, Vitti rolled out EngageNY, the free curriculum that New York State developed and now makes available to other states. EngageNY is also in use in some Detroit-area schools, including in those run by the state’s Education Achievement Authority, which will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer.
  7. Vitti has sparred with the local NAACP over test score disparities between white children and children of color. And a Duval school board member asked Vitti to resign last fall in part over the achievement gap, issuing an open letter explaining why. The local newspaper urged the board to keep him, saying the idea of firing him would be a “tragic mistake.”
  8. But the racial achievement gap is lower in Duval County than in many other urban districts. And low-income and minority students as well as students with disabilities in Jacksonville perform better on a national exam compared to their peers across the country. Vitti credits to Response to Intervention, an approach to helping struggling students fill in their skills gaps, with the strong results.
  9. Vitti believes that school systems can and should give children more than what’s necessary to hit learning goals. Duval County has a voluntary summer school to keep kids busy.
  10. His wife, Rachel, an educator and advocate, invoked the fact that she’s a black woman married to Vitti, who is white, on a poster to campaign “as a straight ally” for a local human rights ordinance. “The sobering fact is that less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, I would have been arrested and jailed for displaying my human right to love a man, who shares my heart, brings me to a poignant pause,” she was quoted as saying on the poster. “Less than 50 years ago, without the voice of allies, my four bi-racial children would have been deemed to be illegitimate and would not have been given the protections and privileges afforded to the children of lawfully wedded parents.”

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”