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Change marks Detroit school chief’s first year

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nikolai Vitti arrived in the city one year ago to lead the reform of one of the nation’s most troubled urban school districts.

In his short time, the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District has instituted substantial changes across the city, including boosting teacher pay, gutting outdated K-8 curriculum in reading and math, and restoring art or music to all schools this fall. But systemic problems, such as 200 teacher vacancies and schools with deplorable building conditions, persist.

Vitti has gotten off to a solid start, but he has a long road ahead to produce meaningful changes to public K-12 education in Detroit, which must include widespread academic growth and improved test scores for the district’s 50,000 students, observers say.

Most education experts say making significant progress addressing the district’s academic problems could take three to five years. Vitti says real progress could come as soon as next school year.

Vitti, who came from Duval County in the Jacksonville area of Florida last May, has not been in the district for a full academic year or for a full cycle of annual state assessments — the results of which are released in August — making it challenging to point to measurements to assess his impact.

When Vitti took on the job of rebuilding Michigan’s largest school district after a decade of state control, he inherited a district where only 9.9 percent of third-graders scored proficient on the state M-STEP test and only 6.8 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient in math.

He says he also found American democracy turned on its head.

“When you are thinking about some of the most fragile children in one of the most fragile communities in this country, not having elected officials they can hold accountable to create positive change for their children is a complete contradiction of American democracy,” Vitti, 41, said of the recent state oversight in the district. The elected school board’s powers were restored in January 2017.

A seasoned educator and Harvard University graduate, Vitti quickly got to work, meeting the community, building a vision for the district and writing a plan to focus on academic achievement and growth. Vitti says his first year has been about analyzing.

In the last 12 months, he has instituted a master teacher program, re-established parent/teacher associations at every school, cut the number of assessments to focus on classroom learning and moved teachers out of administrative jobs and into the classroom to address the district’s serious teacher shortage.

The first year didn’t come without a learning curve for Vitti, whose salary started at $295,000 and rises to $322,000 over a five-year contract. The district lost $6.5 million in personal property tax debt reimbursement claims from the state because of a missed paperwork deadline.

LaMar Lemmons, a school board member since 2009, criticized Vitti for the loss but said the district overall is moving in the right direction.

“He dropped the ball in the initial transition and created an unnecessary $6.5 million shortfall,” Lemmons said. “There are some challenges with his administrative selections and morale. But he is the consummate professional, even-tempered.”

State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, chair of the House Education Reform Committee, called the lost funds “unfortunate” but said he does not blame Vitti for the mistake. A bill has been proposed to have the money refunded this year.

Kelly said Vitti is headed in the right direction with plans to ramp up teacher training this summer, implement a new curriculum this fall and set long-term goals to increase third-grade reading proficiency.

“To make that kind of transition is huge,” Kelly said. “He has a colossal job ahead of him. For Detroit to survive, it needs a robust school system.”

But Kelly said Vitti “started off on the wrong foot” when he came into town and was “negative” about charter schools and blocked a bid of a new Detroit charter to purchase an abandoned district building near Pingree Park. Vitti called choice “disastrous” for Detroit, a city where 53 percent of its schoolchildren attend charter schools.

Kelly said he unfairly “tossed barbs” at Vitti for not implementing an A-F grading system to rank the efficiency of Detroit’s schools in his first appearance before the Legislature in November to discuss the state’s recent $617 million bailout of Detroit schools.

Vitti told lawmakers his first priority was the teacher shortage. Kelly admitted he later learned it was up to the Michigan Department of Education to create the system with Detroit with Vitti, not Vitti’s responsibility alone.

“After that dust-up, I think things are better,” Kelly said. Kelly said he still wants a letter grade system for Detroit schools and all schools statewide.

Developing teacher talent

Vitti’s budget for the 2018-19 school year calls for art or music teachers in every school as well as one gym teacher. He made dramatic changes in school leadership, including having principals work 12 months a year instead of 10, staffing at least one assistant principal at each school and creating deans of culture in schools to lead climate and culture services.

Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation and co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said Vitti has developed a plan to improve academics that includes a new curriculum that meets current state standards — which state assessments are based on — and professional development for teacher talent. That will improve Detroit’s test scores, Allen said.

“He is working with school principals to strengthen their capacity to be data-driven academic leaders and is improving the morale of teachers through much-needed salary increases and professional development opportunities,” Allen said.

This summer, Allen says she wants to see Vitti band with the mayor and support a new bus loop in northwest Detroit, which will attract Detroit students who attend school in the suburbs back to the district. Vitti agreed to launch a new busing system but recently said he wants changes to the concept, such as how it’s funded and trying the program for one year instead of five.

Allen hopes Vitti can identify ways for the community to help improve student attendance, third-grade literacy and the attraction of highly qualified teachers to the district. All three are opportunities to show momentum, she said.

Detroit has one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the state. More than half of the district’s students — 56.3 percent, or 27,533 students — were chronically absent last school year, a staggering number in a district already beset with record-low test scores and a teacher shortage. The year before, it was 54.8 percent.

In response to the data, Vitti last fall moved additional attendance agents directly to schools from the central office to assist in locating chronically absent students and getting them back in school. This fall, the district is launching a formal plan to address chronic absenteeism by decreasing the number of out-of-school suspensions and replacing them with in-school suspensions.

Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA, has worked monthly with Vitti overseeing its partnership agreement with the state over its lowest-performing schools.

Vitti’s biggest challenge coming in, Liepa said, was changing the trajectory of student performance. For a fifth straight time, Detroit students scored the lowest among big-city districts in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2017.

Liepa said Vitti and his administrative team have taken a clear hands-on approach to assess what is going on with educational programs and practices in schools.

They visit schools regularly to assess instruction, they are doing instructional walk-throughs to provide feedback and they meet with principals and staff to review student success indicators, such as academic achievement and graduation rates, and identify what support they need, he said.

“There is a lot of work to do, but their prioritization on instructional practices will yield results,” Liepa said.

Iris Taylor, president of the district’s Board of Education, said Vitti has done a good job laying the groundwork to reform the district and position it to be successful. She said he presented the board with a budget that focuses on student engagement and having highly trained teachers.

“It has been an excellent starting point,” Taylor said. “We have got to fill the (teacher) vacancies. He strongly has to look at preparing faculty for the new curriculum in the fall. Those are going to take up his time.”

Ivy Bailey, president of the teachers union, said she would give Vitti an “A” for effort in getting to know the district, its history and its people.

“With his new reading and math program and the professional development training, if a lot that takes place this summer and fall and everybody has school supplies, I would give him a year and see where we are before we decide whether he is the right choice,” Bailey said.

Parent Rolando Maldonado said since Vitti has taken over the district, he has noticed the rigor in his daughter’s classroom at Roberto Clemente Academy has improved.

Maldonado says he feels more confident in the district after Vitti launched the district’s three-year strategic plan, “Blueprint 2020,” which outlines priorities rooted in developing a child-centered organization that ensures college- and career/technical-ready programming exists across the district.

“Right now there are steps forward for Detroit not to be behind anymore,” Maldonado said. “For Detroit to be better.”

New slate of goals

Vitti’s second year in the district will focus on attendance, building inspections, recruiting teachers, payroll and monitoring contracted services.

“The only way we are going to move our district in a better direction is defining what success is,” he said. “It is preparing all students for college and the world of work and to be successful in general. That is the vision at scale — not just pockets — for all graduates and all classrooms, all schools every day.”

Vitti, whose four children attend district schools, says he has not a bit of regret for taking a job that requires him to transform a district of 50,875 students, around 6,000 employees and a budget of $732 million.

“No hesitation or reservation to say that we that we can rebuild the district, and we will rebuild the district. All I need, all we need — I am not doing this alone — is time, space and support,” he said.