Casting their lines

‘Come help these babies.’ Inside the Detroit district’s long-shot effort to end a crippling teacher shortage

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Recruiters Edwina Dortch and Asenath Jones chat with passersby at Morgan State University's spring career fair

Sporting perfectly tailored black-and-white ensembles and wide, beaming smiles, three seasoned Detroit schools recruiters scanned a packed ballroom at Baltimore’s Morgan State University’s spring job fair recently, searching out likely catches.

“Hey, soror, come on over here,” one of them, Cass Technical High School social studies teacher Asenath Jones, called out as she beckoned to a young woman toting an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority bag. “Let me tell you about Detroit.”

Senior Ashley Fox shot back a quick smile. But while the sociology major stopped to chat with her sister in the nation’s first black sorority, she was not interested in either teaching or joining the district. On an early-April tour of job fairs at historically black colleges and universities, Fox and scores of others who ignored Detroit’s pitches illustrate the challenge confronting Jones and her fellow recruiters.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Ashley Fox, a graduating Morgan State sociology major from Chicago, doesn’t want to teach in Detroit—or anywhere else.

Facing an acute shortage of teachers, districts across the nation are offering $1,500 signing bonuses, loan repayment and master’s degree tuition reimbursement to lure coveted candidates. The financially strapped Detroit Public Schools Community District can offer none of that. And its need is dire: Mid-spring, the district still has nearly 200 vacancies — nearly 7 percent of its teaching force. That’s robbed some children of a chance to be taught by a fully-qualified teacher and forced others into overcrowded classrooms.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his dogged team of recruiters say they’re determined to fill every classroom next school year with a permanent teacher. Besides recruiting locally, he has revived out-of-state tours to campuses that previously provided Detroit’s main district with young teachers.

The district is spending nearly $49,000 this spring to visit recruiting fairs at 38 universities in 13 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. That number includes 15 in-state hiring trips. To hire more teachers of color, recruiters are focusing on historically black colleges and universities such as Morgan State and Howard University, but they also are searching for new educators at teaching powerhouses such as Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

Without the incentives other districts are offering, Vitti has pulled out his secret weapons: highly charismatic recruiters like Jones, recruiting specialist Edwina Dortch, and Cass Tech Principal Lisa Phillips. At Morgan State in Baltimore, the team radiated charm and personality as they cast their lines into the sea of anxious job seekers and reeled in the eager, the curious, and the anxious.

The students had no idea the recruiters, who are on the career-fair circuit, were just as desperate as they were.

The three women chatted up Detroit’s comeback, vibrant nightlife, and low cost of living — a nice one-bedroom apartment can cost only $900. They lightly portrayed challenges as opportunities to work in a troubled district that is transforming, to hone their skills, and to make a difference in the lives of children.

“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere,” Dortch told some students.

And the women tugged at the hearts and consciences of students well-versed in lessons of black history and driven by a sense of responsibility to salve urban woes.

“I have a heart for Detroit,” said Symone Odoms, a junior elementary education major who met with Detroit recruiters when they came to Howard University. “I think it’s the kind of place where I can make a difference as a teacher. I know I can teach a fifth-grader who can’t read how to read.”

At Morgan State, Dortch, turned on her motherly, nurturing, and warm persona, and told some wide-eyed seniors, “You can come help these babies in Detroit.”

That pitch resonated with graduating senior Demetrie Johnson.

“I like the history of Detroit,” he said. “I’m from Philly and I’m attracted to the city life, but I also like the civil rights movement history on up. I can have the whole black experience in Detroit.”

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Morgan State University senior Demetrie Johnson shakes hands with Detroit recruiters after an interview.

Yet while he was willing to serve in an advisory or organizational role, the speech communication major didn’t want to be a teacher.

Phillips had a quick reply: “You don’t have to be a teacher, we’ve got other positions open.”

But not all students were buying the Detroit pitch.

“Detroit! You all had the worst test scores in the nation,” a graduating political science major abruptly stopped and leaned in to tell the recruiters as he passed by.

Dortch was not deterred. “There’s more to the story,” she called after him. “There’s far more to Detroit than poor test scores.”

Recruiters made a point not to mention such negatives: class sizes up to 40 students, leaking roofs and roach-infested classrooms, a shortage of books and desks — and, of course, low pay.

Vitti has vowed to remedy some of that. A new teacher contract approved last year increased entry-level salaries 5.6 percent to $38,500. Last week, the school board approved a new deal that also will enable the district, for the first time in years, to offer higher salaries to experienced teachers coming into the district. Previously, even seasoned teachers had to start at the bottom of the pay scale when accepting a district job.

Still, the urban district lags behind nearby districts. Starting pay will be $45,398 in Warren Consolidated Schools and $41,341 in Northville next year. Further away, Chicago will offer $56,665, and Cleveland, $45,686.

As of May 3, the district had made conditional job offers to more than 300 aspiring teachers, including 148 from the national tour. Those candidates have been invited to a recruiting event this week that could result in signed contracts. But it’s not yet clear how many of those candidates will accept jobs — and resist other offers that might roll in over the summer.

Already, the district is mapping out next year’s recruiting tour, refining timing and planning to hit more schools that could yield teaching candidates.

The district is spending an estimated $49,000 this year on recruiting including about $30,000 for out-of-state travel expenses.

It’s a lot of money, but Vitti said it’s worth it.

“Absolutely,” he said.“When people ask me what is your greatest challenge right now as a school district leader, it’s vacancies. When we think about the learning that is lost for 30 students assigned to a classroom with a vacant teacher, that $30,000 is pennies considering the economic loss we just had with children who don’t have a full-time teacher. There’s a great return on that $30,000.”

Stepped-up recruiting has been chipping away at the problem. Since August, the district has filled 40 percent of its 340 teaching vacancies. But district officials are bracing for a large wave of retirements and other departures that could make the shortage difficult to completely resolve.

Salaries are only one issue. Strong mentoring is key in recruiting and retaining teachers of color, said Linda Darling-Hammond of the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute. It released a study last month highlighting the importance of getting and keeping black teachers in classrooms across the country.

“I would hope the energy they are putting into recruiting, they will also put into ensuring [teachers] have adequate tools to teach, mentoring, good working conditions, and stable places to work,” Darling-Hammond said.

While talking to job candidates, Dortch touted the mentoring and training new teachers receive while working for the district.

Right now, with the next school year just a few months away, Dortch and her team are ramping up all their persuasive skills. And here and there, they’re meeting success.

At a local job fair, back home in Detroit, they nabbed Jennifer Lentz, who will graduate this month from Wayne State with a degree in elementary education and wants to teach music. She’s turning down districts elsewhere that offer large band programs, she said, because Detroit is the place for her, especially as the district is trying to reinvigorate music programs in schools.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Jennifer Lentz, a graduating Wayne State University senior, hopes to teach music in a Detroit district school.

“It’s a real blessing,” Lentz said. “People don’t say nice things about Detroit all the time, but that doesn’t scare me because I really love this city.”

She’s got the spirit recruiters, who will continue searching for candidates throughout the spring and summer, are looking for.

Now they only need to find a few score more like her who are just as willing and eager to teach in Detroit.

“We are looking for teachers who are enthusiastic, really concerned about learning and teaching children,” Dortch said. “We want them to be excited to come work with us.”

The mayor's role

Duggan’s schools commission has already brought charter and district leaders to the table. Here’s what else it can do (and what it can’t)

Mayor Mike Duggan plants to appoint Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to a commission that will focus on issues facing students in district and charter schools.

For the first time in years, Detroit’s mayor will have a small hand in shaping education in the city.

A new commission, whose nine members will be appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, will include representatives of the main Detroit school district and charter schools, whose competition for teachers and students has made them reluctant to come to the same table.

The group will focus on services that have fallen between the cracks in a city where decisions about transportation and after-school programming are made by dozens of unaffiliated charter schools in addition to the main district.

The commission will run a new bus route that will transport students to both district and charter schools on Detroit’s northwest side — a controversial proposal that got official approval from the Detroit school board this week.

It will lead an effort to grade city schools, taking over for the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit, which dissolved last year. The rating system has the potential to dramatically impact the fortunes of schools whose survival depends on their enrollment figures.

And it will serve as a conduit for philanthropic dollars that could lead to other cooperative programs between district and charter schools typically wary of working together.

The mayor’s involvement is politically delicate in a city where years of state intervention in local schools have left voters wary of outsiders overruling the elected school board.

The school board’s decision to support the effort was controversial, with critics at a public meeting this week arguing that the board was giving up too much authority to the mayor.

But Vitti argued successfully that the district is carefully limiting its involvement in the effort with an eye toward preserving local control. He pointed to guidelines for the commission that insist, in bold print, that it “will not encroach” on work being done by existing school operators in Detroit.

Following the board’s approval, Vitti will be among the mayor’s appointments to the commission, which will also include parents and educators from both district and charter schools, a teachers union representative, and community leaders (see below for a full list).

The commission plans to meet eight times a year, and will voluntarily submit to state open records laws, according to its guidelines. It will not begin meeting until Duggan has formally appointed directors to the commission. It’s not clear when that will be.

But as plans for the commission emerge, equally important is what’s missing.

It won’t have the power to hold district and charter schools to performance standards. It won’t be able to determine which schools in the city open and close, and — crucially for a city where many neighborhoods lack access to a quality school — it won’t decide where new schools are located.

Earlier proposals, including one for a powerful central body called the Detroit Education Commission, would have done all of those things, placing substantial school oversight responsibilities in the hands of Detroit’s mayor for the first time since mayoral control of schools ended in 2005. Following a fierce lobbying effort, state lawmakers rejected the plan in 2016.

That was a defeat for advocates who have long pushed for an organization that can bring cohesion to the city’s schools. They argue that the proliferation of school options in Detroit and elsewhere is creating problems for families in low-income, urban districts. Detroit has plenty of schools, but large swaths of the city lack a quality option, and some families must make extreme sacrifices to navigate the system.

Other cities with high concentrations of charter schools have created centralized school agencies. In New Orleans and Washington, parents can go to a single agency to learn about individual schools and enroll their children.

The intent of the Detroit commission is similar, but its scope has been constrained by fierce opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one side, those criticisms have not dissipated. Vitti sought to reassure board members on Tuesday that the commission won’t undermine local control.

“A rating system is inevitable, and this allows us to create a rating system with Detroit stakeholders, not led by a process in Lansing,” he said.

That argument was enough to win over most the board, but not everyone was convinced. Voters “elected a board that would work with them,” said LaMar Lemmons, one of the “nos” in a 5-to-2 vote. “I am vehemently opposed to giving away our authority.”

Lemmons also opposed the Detroit Education Commission when it went before the state legislature in 2016. “The mayor should not have anything — absolutely anything — to do with the schools,” he said Tuesday.

He was joined in that view in 2016 by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, whose school choice advocacy groups donated $1.45 million to state legislators in a matter of weeks to forestall what they viewed as a new layer of charter school oversight.

This time, however, charter advocates didn’t show up to oppose the pared down commission.

“We all need to work together on how schools are evaluated,” Dan Quisenberry, president of a charter organization, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said. “Transportation? Yes, please.”

But he cautioned against the “other extreme,” in which official oversight powers would be handed to the mayor’s office.

Expected appointees to the Community Education Commission include Vitti, district teacher Marsha Lewis, charter school operator Ralph Bland; charter school teacher Rachel Ignagni; at least one parent of a child attending school in the city of Detroit; and Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers.

The remaining slots are expected to go to activists and non-profit leaders, including Monique Marks of Franklin-Wright Settlements; Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation; Teferi Brent of Detroit 300/Goodwill Industries; and Sherita Smith of Grandmont-Rosedale Community Development. All will be unpaid.

pink slips

One Detroit principal keeps his job as others get the ax. Next year’s challenge? Test scores.

PHOTO: Brenda Scott Academy
Students at Brenda Scott Academy will have the same principal, Eric Redwine, next year.

Educators and staff from a Detroit middle school took the microphone on Tuesday evening to save their principal’s job. Addressing the school board, they listed off Eric Redwine’s virtues, arguing that recent problems at the school can be attributed to its transition from state to district management.

And the board listened. Redwine, principal of Brenda Scott Academy, kept his job in a narrow 4-to-3 vote. He was the only one to survive among more than a dozen other administrators — and three other principals — who either lost their jobs or were reassigned to new ones.

The vote came amid a quiet year for “non-renewals,” shorthand for losing one’s job. In previous years, every administrator in the district was forced to re-apply for their job every year, a tactic designed to give state-appointed emergency managers flexibility in the face of an unstable financial situation. This year, by contrast, only 16 administrators — including four principals — were notified by the superintendent’s office that their contracts would not be renewed, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti seeks to bring stability to a district still recovering from repeated changes in management.

The principals were singled out for their school management, Vitti has said — not because of how students performed on tests. Test scores will be a major factor in principal contract renewals next spring for the first time under Vitti, part of the superintendent’s effort to meet his promise of boosting test scores.

Seven of the 16 administrators who received “non-renewals” asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s decision. But in a vote on Tuesday evening, only Redwine survived. He’ll remain as principal of Brenda Scott Academy, according to board member LaMar Lemmons.

The other officials were not named, but Chalkbeat confirmed independently that the district did not renew its contracts with principals Sean Fisher, of Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, and Allan Cosma, of Ludington Magnet Middle School. Vitti previously attempted to remove Cosma, then agreed to offer him a job as assistant principal at Ludington.

At an earlier meeting, Cosma’s employees gathered to vouch for his work. On Tuesday, it was Redwine who received vocal support.

Redwine himself argued publicly that the problems identified at his school by administrators — teacher vacancies and school culture — could be attributed to the school’s transition from a state-run recovery district back to the main district. The recovery district, called the Education Achievement Authority, was created in 2012 to try to turn around 15 of the most struggling schools in the district but the effort was politically unpopular and had limited success. Most of the schools were returned to the main district last summer when the recovery district was dissolved. The only exceptions were schools that had been closed or converted to charter schools.

“I’ve never been told your job is in jeopardy, never been presented a corrective action plan,” Redwine said. “I ask that you reconsider your decision.”

Of the 12 schools that returned to the district last summer, most still have the principals who were in place during the transition last summer. A few got new principals this year after their predecessors left and at least one other former recovery district principal was moved earlier in the year.

Many school leaders reported that the transition was very difficult. It occurred at a time when Vitti was new and still putting his team into place in the central office, making it challenging for principals of the schools to get information they needed about the new district.

When Marcia Horge worked for Redwine, she appreciated his openness to classroom experimentation and his schoolwide Sunday night email, which laid out a game plan for the week ahead.

Then the recovery district folded, Brenda Scott Academy rejoined the main district, and Horge found herself facing a steep pay cut. Rather than accept credit for only two of her 17 years of teaching experience, she left for the River Rouge district. But now, with the Detroit district planning to fully honor teacher experience starting this fall, Horge is contemplating a return to work for Redwine.

“He’s open to our ideas,” she said. “You can go to him. And when there’s a need, he steps in and makes sure we’re communicating.”