Superintendent search

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

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

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.”

Training teachers

How a doctor inspired a new way to train teachers — and how that is leading to a new kind of school

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Elizabeth Moje, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, studied how doctors are trained with Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman at Beaumont Hospital - Dearborn as she developed a new approach to training teachers.

After decades of training teachers in largely the same way, professors at the University of Michigan are making a radical change.

They’re moving to end the longtime practice of sending educators into their own classrooms after just a few months of student teaching.

In its place, they’re creating a new method — one based on the way doctors are trained — that will extend teacher training through their first three years on the job, supporting them as they take on the daunting responsibility of educating children.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” said Lisa Murray, who just finished her second year as an English teacher at Detroit’s Munger Elementary-Middle School.

Before starting at Munger, she’d spent 14 weeks as a student teacher in a fourth-grade classroom but suddenly found herself teaching seventh-grade English. She had a supportive mentor at her new school, she said, but “ultimately you kind of have to figure it out. It’s kind of trial and error.”

That’s how teacher training has been for generations, said Elizabeth Moje, the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan.

“That’s what I did,” Moje said of her intimidating first teaching job when she was 21. “It’s what teachers do — and it’s ludicrous.”

Moje hopes her new approach will not only lead to better outcomes for kids, but will keep teachers in the classroom longer at a time when one in ten are leaving the profession after their first year.

She’s particularly hoping to keep teachers working in urban schools where students are more likely to be academically behind, but where limited resources for supporting teachers means that as as many as 35 percent of new teachers leave the profession after their first year.

The new approach involves this: A K-12 teaching school, similar to a teaching hospital, where future teachers — called interns — will train together under a single roof.

They’ll complete their student teaching there. Then, instead of heading out in search of a job in another school, they’ll stay on for three more years as full-time, fully certified teaching “residents.”

Residents won’t be trainees. They’ll be real classroom teachers working with real children and making a real salary — the same as any other first-, second-, or third-year teacher. But, unlike their peers in traditional schools, they’ll continue to learn from their professors and will work closely with the veteran teachers — called attendings — who will make up most of the school’s teaching staff.

Moje hopes to launch the teaching school as a partnership with a school or district in or near Detroit as soon as the fall of 2019.

Once it’s up and running, she said, she expects that between half and two-thirds of the faculty will be veteran teachers. The rest will be residents.

Details are still being ironed out, including the specifics about which school or district will partner with the university on the effort. But one option is the main Detroit district, where Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he’s been in “active conversations” with Moje.

We are confident that something will be announced shortly about our plans,” he said. “The residency program is exactly what we need during a time when many teachers are not provided with the right support and training to assume responsibility of improving student performance, especially in Detroit.”

Vitti added that he thinks a program like this would recruit high-quality candidates to teach in Detroit and keep them in city schools.

***

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, director of educational development at Beaumont Hospital -Dearborn, travels around the hospital with doctors-in-training including a medical student, a resident and an intern, stopping to ask them what they’ve learned from each patient. It’s a model the University of Michigan wants to apply to training teachers.

Moje is not the first to call for teacher training to look more like medical training.

Even as the trend in education in recent years has tilted toward accelerated certification programs like Teach for America that give non-education majors a crash course in teaching before placing them in a classroom, research has shown that if teachers aren’t well prepared and supported, they’re more likely to burn out and quit.

Teacher turnover — a problem that’s especially acute in schools with fewer resources to support new teachers — can exacerbate the very teacher shortages that alternative certification programs like Teach For America and the for-profit Teachers of Tomorrow are designed to address.

That’s why some districts and charter school networks in recent years have started year-long residency programs that are similar to student teaching but involve an entire school year.

Some schools have hired new teachers as “associates” before letting them fly solo in a classroom. The Denver school district has a new program that lets a handful of new teachers spend their first year working part-time in a classroom and using the rest of their time to plan, observe and hone their craft.

But Moje’s concept — the idea of extending teacher training for three years— is one that experts say is a novel approach that’s worth watching.

Because the residents are paid members of the school staff, the model doesn’t rely on private donations, or ask teachers to do extra training on their own dime.

“It’s exciting,” said Maria Hyler, a senior researcher for the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank. “It fits into a lot of what’s going on in teacher prep right now, but on steroids, which is fabulous!”

Hyler noted that 30-50 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first three years, “often because of challenging working conditions or lack of preparation” so it makes sense to support them through that time.  

Karen DeMoss, who directs the Prepared To Teach program at Bank Street College, said she questioned how this model could work for large teaching colleges that bring in more candidates than they’re likely to have jobs for in any one teaching school. But she said she’ll be watching with interest to see how this model plays out for Michigan.

“I love the idea that an institution is committing to every single student having access to this kind of extended learning experience to learn how to do one of the most complicated jobs around,” she said.

***

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Elizabeth Moje, the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan joins a resident, an intern and a medical student as they meet with a patient at Beaumont Hospital – Dearborn. A school she’s developing will similarly create ways for teachers to learn from peers a year or two ahead of them.

 

Moje’s teaching school concept began in earnest around 2010 when Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, who was the residency director for internal medicine at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn, reached out to Moje and her colleague, Bob Bain, at Michigan’s education school for help developing a new evaluation tool for medical residents.

A partnership soon emerged that had Moje joining Zimmerman on medical rounds in the hospital and Zimmerman joining Moje to observe teachers training at Detroit’s Cody High School.

The two soon noticed key differences in the way their students are taught.

At Cody, for example, Zimmerman noted a classroom where a seasoned teacher was working with four student teachers.

The classroom teacher had divided her high school students into four groups and had assigned a student teacher to lead each group.

“I saw them doing the very best they could to get the students to pay attention to a project,” Zimmerman said of the student teachers, but while all of the student teachers were focused on the teens they were working with, none of them were watching each other.

The classroom teacher circulated to each of the small groups, but she could only see one group at a time so the other three student teachers were largely on their own.

“They were all engaged in independent practice, which is great,” Moje said. But all of the student teachers were in the first semester of their training. Most had not yet developed much skill, so three of them at any time could have been doing something wrong “and no one would know,” she said.

In contrast, medical students, interns, residents, and attendings visit patients together in daily hospital rounds. Everyone has a role to play that includes learning from the person ahead of them in their training, and teaching the person coming up behind them.

“A third-year medical student is almost always paired at the hip with an intern,” Zimmerman said. “It’s much easier to learn from a peer that’s one or two years ahead of you and it’s much easier to teach if you are teaching somebody one or two years behind you. You have a better sense of where they’re coming from and they’re not so scared. ”

When Moje and Zimmerman were on rounds one day last month at Beaumont-Dearborn, they were accompanied by a fourth-year medical student, a first-year resident (called an intern) and a second-year resident.

As the team visited a patient with a severe inflammation of the pancreas, Zimmerman asked David Dimcheff, the medical student, what he thought the patient needed next.

“We treat with antibiotics,” Dimcheff responded.

Ok, Zimmerman said but, “what are the other options?”

Dimcheff looked confused. He froze for a minute, thinking, then glanced across the patient’s bed to where the two residents, Pooja Modi and Ahmed Ali, were making a hand gesture that looked like pulling a thread from a piece of fabric.

Dimcheff hesitated until the gestures made sense.

“We could get a sample with a fine needle aspiration and determine what bacteria is causing the infection,” he said. “That would help us tailor our antibiotic treatments.”

Yes, Zimmerman said, “and it would also help us ascertain whether or not [the pancreas] is actually infected.”

Moje noted later that her student teachers at Cody didn’t have residents to turn to if they were struggling.

They were “working independently and not having the kind of support that [Zimmerman’s] team has,” Moje siad. “His fourth-year med student, David, always has somebody more senior to him and our students don’t.”

Moje believes her teaching school can change that.

She’s designing the school so that as resident teachers improve, they’ll help train teachers coming up behind them. They’ll attend classes and workshops that could be held in the school building. And they’ll participate in meetings similar to what hospitals call “grand rounds,” where doctors, residents and medical students gather to discuss the condition of patients and the best course of treatment.

“One day you might be in a classroom with a student teacher and an attending, and a [university] field instructor might also be present, and a faculty member would show up, especially if we’re teaching classes there,” Moje said. “The next day, you might be in the exact same classroom and the student teacher is in a different classroom, but the attending is there.”

The new model will simplify a lot of things for the university’s school of education, which last year had student teachers working in 356 classrooms scattered around southeastern Michigan, Moje said. The university also has interns doing observations in classrooms for several months before their student teaching begins. 

“We can’t be there every day,” she said. “The advantage of the teaching school is that they’ll be in one location so we’ll be able to concentrate a lot more of our time and attention on these interns. That’s also why we can continue to support the residents because they’ll all be in one place.”

By offering college classes in the teaching school building, students can work toward their bachelor’s degree — or pursue a master’s — without having to drive between a Detroit school and a college lecture hall 45 minutes away in Ann Arbor.

When interns first start out, they’ll rotate to different teachers’ classrooms and slowly take on more responsibility.

“A first semester intern might be in a classroom with a teaching resident for part of the day, and in a classroom with an attending teacher for part of the day,” Moje said. “While in medicine, doctors move from patient to patient, in our clases they’ll be attached to a third-grade classroom. But, for part of the day, the teaching resident is leading and the other part, the attending is leading.”

All future teachers “would see a high level of practice,” she said, and all of the extra hands in the building will enable educators of all stages to leave their classrooms to supervise junior teachers or to watch a senior teacher work.

After three years on staff in the teaching school, residents will leave as fourth-year teachers who have been trained to weather the intensive challenges of teaching in urban schools.

That’s how Moje believes her school can potentially impact the quality of instruction across a city like Detroit.

“The gamble we’re all making,” Moje said, is that residents will move on from this teaching school and take jobs in other urban schools. “We’ll start to build a sense of scale because we’re distributing the talent pool to all these other schools.”

***

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
When the team of doctors at Beaumont Hospital -Dearborn use a scope to view a patient’s vocal chords, they stop to make sure medical student David Dimcheff gets a chance to look through the scope.

Moje’s vision is to eventually have at least two teaching schools — one in an urban area like Detroit and the other near the university’s main campus in more affluent Ann Arbor.

“We hope this will recruit large numbers of people who want to do something very different in terms of teacher education,” she said. ”As the school grows and gains more stature, we hope it will also draw people into teaching.”

The new teaching school could be a tough sell for some parents who might fear that the new model is too experimental, or that educating their children would take a back seat to the demands of training teachers. But Moje said children will get a lot more attention in this school than they would in a typical school.

She believes children will benefit from efficiencies like those created in the hospital when doctors and med students work together.

As Zimmerman and his team made their way around the hospital last month, Zimmerman had the group stop to watch an ear, nose, and throat specialist use a scope to examine a patient’s vocal chords, making sure that Dimcheff, the medical student, got a chance to look through the scope.

He stopped an infectious disease specialist to request an impromptu hallway lecture on bacterial growth. And when the team emerged from the room of a 91-year-old patient who’d developed a bleeding ulcer when drugs he was taking for a heart condition interacted with drugs he was prescribed for shoulder pain, Zimmerman held the group in the hallway for almost 20 minutes, questioning each member about learnings from that patient.

In some ways, stopping to teach is inefficient, he said, but the work interns and residents do in the hospital more than makes up for the time spent teaching them.

“They’re admitting all the patients,” he said. “Putting orders into the computer, following up on [test results], getting a consultant to come see the patient, gathering everybody’s opinion, talking to the family, talking to the patient over and over, checking with them over and over again.”

Moje said she envisions her teaching school working the same way.

“It’s very rare that attending teachers, or any teachers, have the time to do this kind of on-the-job teaching of teachers,” Moje said as she watched Zimmerman and his team.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to think through,” she said. “What would it mean if we made what we’re now calling attending teachers able to move around the building more? And be able to pop in and work with a novice teacher? With a teaching resident? With a student teacher? An intern? What would we have to do structurally?”

Murray, the English teacher at Detroit’s Munger Elementary-Middle school was intrigued by the idea of teachers getting more support in their first years.

Ultimately, she said, she’s found ways to serve her students. In her second year, the main Detroit school district honored her as its rookie teacher of the year.

“I had a better understanding of how I can run my classroom,” she said. “A better understanding of the curriculum.”

But she fondly remembers the support she had from her college professors and liked the idea of formal support continuing into a teacher’s first years.

“Teaching is one of those careers that no one can ever really prepare you for,” she said.

But once you’re in a school, doing the work, “to be able to have all these connections, all these professors, and all the people I had the support from in college … That could be really powerful.”

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District