Detroit school reform gives principals 'nowhere to hide'

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — At quarterly, data-driven meetings with Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti, principals take the hot seat one at a time.

The rules of these problem-solving sessions, known as DATACOM, which stands for data and communications, are simple: Be honest, direct and transparent. Second: Be prepared to offer solutions.

It is impossible for principals to hide from Vitti or the troubling data on their schools. It's all on display on a massive screen above Vitti's head: test scores and proficiency rates as well as attendance, enrollment and chronic student absenteeism figures.

Adriana Rendon, Principal at Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy, talks to second grader Anayeli Toro about her dinosaur project.

"There is no question that we have challenges and problems," Vitti tells principals at a recent DATACOM meeting at Randolph Technical Center. "But when leaders are able to identify the challenges and problems and speak to solutions, we are moving forward to building the district and schools that students deserve." 

Since arriving in the district in 2017, Vitti has made dramatic changes in school leadership, having principals work 12 months a year instead of 10, staffing at least one assistant principal at each school and creating a dean of culture to lead climate and culture services in buildings.

And this school year, with two years of data in hand, a new K-8 curriculum underway and assessment tools in place, Vitti said he is having conversations with principals that focus on their accountability for the work being done in their buildings.

"So this conversation is different than last year's," said Vitti in an interview from his office. "We have now provided additional resources and stronger tools. We should start to see the needle move in school. Each conversation is specific to the school: Is it moving in the right direction and why? And what are you doing to make it move?'

"We can't just say 'it is what is it is.' We are here to solve problems. In that room, there is nowhere to hide."

Under Vitti, instruction is now the No. 1 priority for principals who have been directed to increase proficiency rates by 10 percent in math and reading tests in grades 3-8.

That's a tall order in a district in which last year's M-STEP proficiency rates for third-graders was 11.3 percent in reading and 10.7 percent in math. Proficiency rates in some grades were near zero.

"The idea of zero is just unacceptable," Vitti said. "Under emergency management, there wasn’t accountability around that," referring to the state's focus on financials rather than academics while under recent state control.

The data-focused meetings are one of the examples of trying to establish a new leadership culture at the district, Vitti said. Two years ago, the public watched as 13 of the district's principals were criminally convicted in a $2.7 million kickback scandal involving a school supply salesman.

Vitti said he would not make decisions on whether to demote or fire a principal based solely on DATACOM meetings, but improving a school's performance is an expectation he has made clear. 

"The process will not be an all-or-nothing proposition regarding the performance data," Vitti said. "However, if all data points (student achievement, enrollment, vacancies, attendance) are moving in the wrong direction and evidence of a lack of systems and processes at the school is present, then we would consider removal or reassignment."

Decisions on whether to keep, remove or fire a principal will likely be made at the end of the school year, he said.

Principals have to begin to problem-solving at a higher level, Vitti said, especially as the district moves to a new A-F grading system that relies heavily on data for each school's score.

"We are also trying to change the environment. It's not waiting until the end of he year to fix a problem," Vitti said.

Focusing on instruction

DPSCD has 100 principals on staff who average 17 years of experience and earn between $100,960 and $131,249, district officials said. 

Adriana Rendon is a first-year principal in the district. Her post at Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy oversees a K-8 school in southwest Detroit with 379 students.

Rendon, a former assistant principal, teacher and master teacher, said she sees her job as an instructional leader — someone who has an understanding of teaching strategies and can lead her 24 teachers to implement those practices.

Under Vitti's leadership changes, like having an attendance agent in the building, Rendon said she can focus on instruction. That comes by providing teachers with what they need in the classroom, monitoring instruction to ensure the new curriculum is being implemented and confirming student interventions are taking place to improve state test scores.

"Now principals can focus on the true instructional leadership and increasing academic achievement with students versus dealing with behavior interventions and supports that the dean of culture is responsible for," Rendon said. "I am excited because of all the support."

Neinas is a low-performing school in a partnership program with the state. About 70 percent of her students are English language learners who speak Spanish and few education materials are available to her in Spanish. Proficiency scores in math in some grades are close to zero.

The goal is increasing proficiency scores by 10 percent within a school year "is somewhat unattainable," Rendon said.

Rendon said students are expected to use iReady assessment programs that test skills in reading and math at least 45 minutes per week per subject. But many are not getting the time on the system because her school lacks the necessary technology.

"The technology is lacking here. Some schools are 1:1. We are not one of them. We have enough tech for maybe one-third of for students," Rendon said.

But at a recent DATACOM meeting, Rendon asked for assistance from the district's IT department and got it. 

She had 100 tickets requesting help from IT pending, but only 12 had been resolved. Within a day, the IT staff was out to her school and soon discovered the school's iPad minis were not compatible with iReady.

Still Rendon said she loves the DATACOM meetings Vitti has set up.

"That moment in the meetings you can make our requests known," Rendon said. "I appreciate he wants transparency, so we are able to speak honestly about the struggles we are going through — for example technology — and receive assistance the district can provide."

One of the biggest challenges Rendon faced as principal this fall was dismantling a self-contained special education room for seventh- and eighth-grade learning-disabled students.

Rendon wanted the students in full inclusion in a general education classroom before they went to high school where self-contained classrooms are not used.

"There was some pushback. I had multiple parent meetings. They did not want them to be mixed," she said.

Rendon consulted with her principal leader — a new position created by Vitti to help principals — and worked with a supervisor in the district's special education department to problem solve challenges created by the move.

"I got parents and students to see in high school you will no longer be self-contained," she said. "In this small environment, let's get you acclimated to that now...."

'The science of teaching'

Johnathon Matthews is an 11-year veteran principal of Detroit's public school district, recently leaving the small schools program at Cody High after a decade there.

He is principal at Pershing High School and said education can be divided into two approaches: the art of teaching or the science of teaching.

"Art is creating lessons, designing that lesson that pops. Take a normal textbook and convey it to the child through a teacher. That’s how education was before Dr. Vitti," Matthews said.

"What (Vitti) is focused on now is the science of teaching. ...The data points, to find out what the best practices are in education and if the strategy is working," Matthews said. "It takes away from the art. Things are now best practices. Rooted in research. Art of teaching is more from the gut."

That’s a big shift, Matthews said, for himself and others, as principals struggle to turn around low-performing schools where children come from high-poverty neighborhoods.

DATACOM meetings force principals to look at the details of the job they didn’t before, he said, such as attendance or absenteeism.

"In previous meetings, we spoke in generalities. The advantage of the data is: it is there. You can't ignore the facts," Matthews said.

There is a downside to the meetings, he said.

"It is difficult to admit your wrongdoings, your ego is going to take a hit," Matthews said. "Anyone who gets into a leadership position, your ego grows. And it shrinks when the data isn’t good."

Sometimes the data isn’t fair, Matthews said, and is the result of longstanding poverty in the city and its neighborhoods.

"Like you are under attack for a problem that no one else has been able to solve. In many ways, it feels overwhelming," he said.

The principal impact

According to research conducted for the Wallace Foundation by the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto, principals are second only to classroom instruction among the in-school factors that affect student learning.

Officials at Michigan State University's College of Education have been talking with Vitti and his cabinet to form a partnership for future principal training and support programs.

Kristy Cooper Stein, an associate professor in K-12 Educational Administration at MSU's College of Education, said while there is no one prototype of an effective principal and every school is different, there are some key commonalities for top leaders of schools.

"They are good managers of people. They are able to ID good teachers to hire and provide the appropriate support. And recognize what teachers need," Stein said. "A huge problem is turnover in urban schools with principals and teachers."

Principals can control how well teachers feel supported and whether objectives are clear, Stein said.

Vitti's intense approach — adding additional administrative staff, holding DATACOM meetings and other measures —  is making many principals feel supported, Stein said, based on conversations she has had with district staff.

"Having someone who comes in with a long-term focus to put systems in place to grow over time ... I think people feel a sense of relief that this is happening, versus just sorting out the books under an emergency manager," Stein said.

Stein said she hopes Vitti won't overwhelm principals with too many initiative and expectations at once.

"It really important not to burn out the new people who working so hard to follow the new order," Stein said.

'No secrets'

Deidre Davis has been teaching in the district for 23 years. Davis, a teacher at Neinas, said she likes Vitti's push for all principals to be transparent about their schools.

"I really like the transparency," Davis said. "There are no secrets. They are very honest about what is required of them and what is required of us. A big part of Dr. Vitti's administration is transparency. He wants everyone to know what is going on so there are no big surprises and you know what your expectations are."

Lawrence Rudolph, a principal leader in the district, said the job of a principal is complex, full of challenges and akin to managing a small city.

Rudolph's job is to mentor 22 of the district's principals, visiting four to six schools a day, every day to troubleshoot problems. The focus is primarily on instruction but can include other avenues of leadership.

"Most of the principals love what they do or they wouldn’t be in this business," he said. "You have to have the knack to make things better for kids. ...These are our students, and we have to do everything we can for them."