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.”

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.