Superintendent search

Five reasons why Nikolai Vitti might be Detroit’s next superintendent — and three reasons he might not

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Jacksonville superintendent Nikolai Vitti appeared to be fading by the end of a grueling, 12-hour interview process on Wednesday in his bid to become Detroit’s next school superintendent.

After hours of answering similar questions, over and over, from teachers and students, then labor and business leaders, then parents and community members, then finally the school board that will make the crucial decision for Detroit schools, Vitti’s voice was starting to crack but he continued to express wild enthusiasm for the job in the city he called “home.”

“Since beginning in Jacksonville [in 2012], I’ve only applied to one job and that’s this job,” he told the Detroit school board Wednesday night at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High @ Northwestern. “I feel Detroit calling me.”

Vitti, who grew up in Dearborn Heights, has worked as a teacher and administrator in Winston-Salem, N.C., New York City, Miami and Jacksonville.

“I’ve been asking myself why am I doing this everywhere other than where I’m from,” he said. “I believe that Detroit needs me and I need Detroit.”

Vitti says he’s is so committed to Detroit and its schools, that if gets the job, he will “likely” enroll his four children in the district.

“It’s all a process,” he told reporters after his school board interview. “First I have to be offered the job but I would plan to live in city limits and would likely send my children to public schools.”

That’s a bold statement from someone who spent the day talking to people about the serious challenges facing the district. He said he was “enraged” to see the conditions of the Detroit schools he visited. What he saw “shook me,” he said. “To see that our children have to go to schools where there are holes in the walls, tiles that are not replaced.” But he still said he would try to find the right Detroit schools for his kids — including two who have dyslexia. Next fall, they will be in the eighth, seventh, fifth, and third grades.

“As I always say, it’s about finding the right match for your child and that would be something that we would have to investigate and look at,” he said. “If we find the right match for our children, then they would attend public schools. If it’s not the right match for many different reasons, then obviously that’s not the decision we would make.”

But will Vitti get the job?

That depends on a lot of things including how the only other finalist — River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman — performs during a similar 12-hour trial that’s scheduled for Monday. The board has also been under heavy pressure to expand the pool to include more candidates and to consider current district superintendent Alycia Meriweather. But Vitti has several things going for him, as well as several things working against him. Here’s a breakdown:

Five reasons he might get the job:

    1. He has experience running large urban districts. The 130,000-student, 200-school Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville is more than three times the size of Detroit’s district. (It’s 65 times the size of the 2,000-student, five-school River Rouge district.) “I’ve been through the rodeo and this work is a rodeo,” he told labor and business leaders Wednesday. “I’m offering a resume of someone who has done this work and created positive change for children.” He also said he’s done this without some of the more controversial approaches that have been used across the country. “I’ve never closed a school. I’ve never converted a school to a charter. I believe the work has to be owned by traditional public education. I have turned around schools by doing the work within the district.”
    2. He appears to be politically savvy. He delivered what seemed like the right answers to politically sensitive questions. He responded to a question from a union leader by touting that he comes “from a union family.” When asked about special education, he discussed his personal struggle with dyslexia and how that led him to create a specialized school in Jacksonville for students with dyslexia as well as a special school for kids with autism. And when a parent asked him a question in Spanish, he cut off her interpreter and translated the question for the rest of the room. “I could answer in Spanish,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be perfect and I’d rather just do it in English.”
    3. He thinks Detroit can save itself — without painful disruption. Vitti vowed to bring money into the district by luring Detroit children back from charter and suburban schools. “In Jacksonville, we reduced private enrollment [in Florida’s private school voucher system] by 120% by being competitive,” he said. In Detroit, he said, “we are going to compete. I say this not to make a statement of bravado but we are going to put charter schools out of business … because we’re going to offer a better product. We’re going to begin to tell our story and begin to bring parents back to our school system.”
    4. His political experience could help Detroit maintain its independence. As a former Florida deputy chancellor for school improvement, he claimed he has the political skills to fend off intrusions from state education officials like the state’s recent threat to close two dozen schools in the city. “I can speak the language of the state … I feel like I can go to Lansing and have the credibility to talk about what’s working and what’s not.”
    5. He offered creative solutions to some of Detroit’s most intractable problems. Among them: partnering with the business and banking community to create incentives to attract Detroit teachers such as low-cost mortgages or student loan forgiveness. “We have to think out of the box,” he said.

    Three reasons he might not get the job:

    1. He’s an outsider. Despite claiming that Detroit is “home,” he has never lived in the city of Detroit (just the metro area) and has never worked in Detroit schools. That’s in contrast to Coleman, who is a Detroit Public Schools grad and a former district official and to Meriweather who has spent her life and career in the district. Detroiters have been burned in the past by outsiders who’ve come to town from elsewhere to try to make a name for themselves, only to leave the schools worse off than they were. Vitti claims he would be here to stay. He’s asked for a five-year contract and said he hopes to stay longer than that. “One of the tragedies as far as the history of public schools in Detroit has been the sustainability of leadership and constant changes. Every leader wants to put their own fingerprint on a body of work and that means disrupting the previous leader’s work so I think if we’re going to get this right here, we have to have sustainability in leadership.”
    2. His big ideas could face serious hurdles in Detroit. Vitti spent Wednesday touting programs he implemented in Jacksonville that could be brought to Detroit that will sound great to parents and educators: Expanding technology so that more kids have access to computers; making sure every school has arts and music programs; ending the city’s severe teacher shortage by paying teachers more and creating a teacher “pipeline” that starts in high school; adding mental health programs to schools to help kids deal with trauma; creating a parent academy to train parents to be more involved in their children’s education; supporting principals with smaller ratios between the school leaders and their supervisors; and better marketing for Detroit schools to help them lure kids from charter schools and the suburbs. He even talked up a literacy program he started in Jacksonville that gives new moms books engraved with their child’s name and the year he or she will graduate from high school as way of making sure parents believe their child will graduate.

      But all of those things cost money, and Detroit’s financial problems are notorious. Vitti noted that the per pupil funding rate in Florida is lower than in Michigan and that he uses a “zero-based budgeting” approach that helps him align budgets with school priorities, but some people who met him Wednesday remained skeptical. “I’m leaving with a wait and see impression,” said Deanne Surles, whose children attend the Bates Academy and who was representing the Detroit parent group 482 Forward. “In light of the fact that we have no money in Detroit, very limited resources, how can the strategies or the plans or the methods implemented there be replicated here?” Vitti also didn’t acknowledge some other challenges. He vowed to avoid closing schools but didn’t fully explain what the district should do with the thousands of classroom seats sitting empty in school buildings that enroll just a fraction of the students they were built to serve.

    3. He has ties to a national foundation.Vitti was asked at least three times on Wednesday about his ties to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has funded controversial education reforms in Detroit like the creation of the state-run Education Achievement Authority. Vitti is participating in a Broad school leader fellowship program that has been a training ground for a new breed of district leaders who prioritize holding educators and schools accountable for boosting student performance. It has produced some controversial Detroit figures like former emergency manager Robert Bobb. Vitti says he signed up for the Broad fellowship to expand his own skills as a school leader but that doesn’t mean he supports the foundation’s agenda including its strong support of charter schools and school choice. “I’m fiercely independent. No one tells me what to do,” he said, later adding that the Detroit emergency managers who participated in the Broad fellowship “were not educators. They were managers … I’m an educator. That’s all I’ve done and Broad does not define me.”

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.”