As Nikolai Vitti this week begins his tenure as superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, he becomes the face of a district with a majority of children from backgrounds where high concentrations of poverty have widened the gap for success between them and their suburban counterparts.
And for a long time many wondered if the district was doing enough in educating these children to realize their full potential and help them break the cycle of poverty that has largely defined their existence.
Because of this, the former superintendent of the Duval County, Florida, public schools, is now tasked with trying to transform one of the most troubled school districts in the nation into a model for accountability and academic success.
Vitti takes the reins of one of the most publicly distrusted and vilified institutions in the city because of all the abuse the school district, which is supposed to serve children, has experienced through the years by the actions of individuals who mismanaged district resources in concert with their external collaborators.
In fact one of the highlights of this was how sloppy and lax accounting rules made it easier for the school district’s resources to be mismanaged evidenced by the number of audits that indicted how the school’s procurement department was doing business. All of this was taking place while students could hardly find toilet paper in restrooms and teachers left scrambling for tools for their classrooms.
Much of this happened after the 1999 state takeover of the district which, in itself, was a failed experiment.
Because of such a painful history of Detroit Public School Community District, Vitti’s assignment is nothing but a gamble to get it right for Detroit children this time around. For the sake of the children, let’s root for the success of the new sheriff in town.
The stakes are high and Vitti knows it. Everyone everywhere will be watching and following every move he makes to ensure that this era is not a return to the past.
“I enter this opportunity knowing that you are tired of rotating leaders, broken governance structures, and politics that appear to be more about adults and ideology than children and education. I know that your most recent history and experience is one of trauma and even disrespect,” Vitti said in an open letter to the district.
“I applied for this position because I believe that it is time for the school district and city to be represented through an elected school board that would hire a change agent as superintendent with a track record of commitment and results in large districts that mirror the challenges of Detroit, but one that is also at their heart an educator who deeply loves and believes in this city and its communities.”
Keith Johnson, former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers who has seen and participated in a lot of battles to preserve the educational integrity of the district, said he wants Vitti to begin tackling the challenges right away.
“Among the challenges he must address immediately are developing a comprehensive plan for those schools identified as low performing schools,” Johnson said. “This will include assessing how to direct available resources to provide educational support such as social workers, attendance agents, nurses, psychologists to combat the inhibitors to student growth and outcomes.”
Johnson also said morale of the workers should be a focus for the new superintendent.
“He must also build morale among staff, teachers in particular who have endured tremendous cuts in salary, health care, administrative support and professional respect,” Johnson said. “DPS will continue to fail miserably in attracting and retaining quality teachers, and filling existing vacancies when there is no path toward economic improvement. He also must project which schools will have to close within the next two years unless student enrollment stabilizes, let alone increases.”
At the core of Vitti’s tenure will be the question of trust because others before him rolled out fanciful plans with fanfare and tough talk yet achieved little.
“He has to be able to build trust and faith in that our kids can and will be better served. He needs to both listen and lead with a vision for all. He needs to involve those who are most impacted by the education of children — from Day One on the job,” said Cindy Eggleton, the CEO of Brilliant Detroit, a group focused on helping families with children prepare for schools in neighborhoods like Cody Rouge, southwest and central Detroit.
Vitti, Eggleton said, should make early childhood education key part of his mission.
“Expand efforts in early childhood — both in the district and by creating a clear pathway so kids starting school are ready. Most kids today are already starting with a disadvantage when they are not kindergarten ready. This is a disadvantage that is hard to recover from,” Eggleton said. “Make sure resources are attached to third-grade reading. Today only 14 percent of our kids are reading at grade level by third grade, which is a critical benchmark of later success.”
Vitti is already pledging a new direction in his open letter to the district.
“Our organization will be child-centric while protecting and supporting the core of the organization — the classroom. I commit to an unprecedented work ethic, financial transparency, visibility and engagement in our schools and communities, and an unapologetic passion and defense of public education,” he said.
“In addition, I commit to demonstrating the same persistence and resilience that you, parents and students demonstrate daily. I also commit to establishing and maintaining a positive, professional and supportive relationship with the school board while advocating for what is best for children.”
For now, Vitti’s new undertaking is a gamble with Detroit’s children and their future until we start seeing concrete and positive results.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.