Detroit — A dramatic drop in out-of-school suspensions, a decline in chronic absenteeism and stronger readers are among improvements at Detroit's public school district, according to the superintendent, who is in his second year of reforming the district.

Nikolai Vitti spoke Wednesday night on the state of the district, the Detroit Public Schools Community District's $731 million budget and its future at the 2019 State of the Schools address at Renaissance High School. About 350 people attended the invitation only event including state education officials, business leaders and elected officials.

Vitti said implementing teacher-driven K-8 literacy and mathematics curriculum and new assessments with actionable data has resulted in stronger readers and growing mathematicians.

"Midyear (reading) data indicates that 27 percent of students are on pace to make a year’s worth of growth, 18% of students had already grown a full year by the midyear, and 11% of students had already grown two full years by the midyear," Vitti said.

In math, 19% of students are on pace to make a year’s worth of growth, 18% of students had already grown a full year by the midyear and 6% of students had already grown two full years by the midyear, Vitti said.

Enrollment is up by more than 4,800 students during the last three years, Vitti said, bringing the district up to nearly 51,000 students across 106 schools. Vitti said 1,000 positions have been added across the district, which helped reduce the teacher shortage from 275 vacancies to 120.

The district was rated “on track” at its 18-month state performance review of schools that were identified for possible closure before the school board took office, Vitti said.

“After a year of analyzing inadequate systems and processes, and implementing new ones, we are beginning to show the signs of improvement,” Vitti said Wednesday night. “We will continue to scale needed reforms while developing the capacity of our leaders and students to, once again, show the world what Detroit children are capable of when an educational system addresses their needs and enhances their gifts and talents."

"All we need is time, political space and support, and equable resources to accelerate, scale and sustain our improvement," Vitti said. "This means multiple partners continuing to step up to fill gaps and advocate for DPSCD’s future. It’s time for everyone to pick up their brick to help rebuild our district.”

Under the district's new code of conduct, Vitti said students, families and staff have become engaged, resulting 27% fewer in-school and out-of-school suspensions. Vitti said there were 17,048 suspensions in April 2018 compared to 12,373 this year.

There were 63% fewer out-of-school suspensions, Vitti said, with 6,538 in April 2018 compared to 6,097 this school year.

Vitti said funding new positions, such as deans of culture, school-based attendance agents, counselors and school culture facilitators, resulted in additional benefits across the district, including a 7-percentage point decline in the chronic absenteeism rate, from 33% in March 2018 to 26% in March 2019, or 3,800 fewer students.

Vitti has spent nearly two years in the district  of nearly 7,000 employees, leading a turnaround in classrooms with new curricula, increased professional development, principal training and other measures.

Vitti shut off drinking water at all schools last August after several schools had excessive levels of lead and copper. The district is still in the process of installing water stations inside its schools after 57 buildings tested with elevated levels of lead and/or copper in the water.

A seasoned educator and Harvard University graduate, Vitti said Wednesday that 152 water stations need to be installed; 388 are in across the district.

The stations are expected to be running by the start of the new school year. 

Vitti said the governor’s budget proposes $60 million to support hydration stations, and that district was the first to require universal water testing and use of hydration stations.

Vitti's budget for the 2018-19 school year has called 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.

During the address, Vitti said after reinstating the PTA and launching the Parent Academy, there were more than 3,401 parent-teacher home visits completed by March and about 6,807 Parent Academy participants since the inception of the program. 

Last month, education officials in Detroit, including Vitti, approved an A-F rating system for Detroit schools only. The system applies to traditional public schools and charter schools. Vitti has said his district is ready to embrace greater accountability for student performance, as are individual schools.

In his first year in office, Vitti instituted substantial changes, 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 teacher vacancies and schools with poor building conditions, persist.

He also instituted a master teacher program, 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.

Education observers say Vitti needs 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 high-poverty students.

Vitti, whose salary started at $295,000 and rises to $322,000 over a five-year contract, is still contending with $500 million in needed repairs to his school buildings and is moving ahead with a smaller plan to fix some buildings with higher student capacity.

Vitti said a new curriculum will be implemented this fall at high schools and dual enrollment programs, where students take college courses to earn an associate’s degree, will be at all high schools this fall.

The district will open five new schools this fall, including one on the campus of Marygrove College.

Vitti said more work needs to be done with literacy. He said academic interventionists and early-learning teachers will be trained on multi-sensory approaches to get more children reading at grade level.

More work must be done in the area of special education, Vitti said, especially in the areas of processing Individual Education Plans.

Vitti still must address a teacher shortage of 120 positions.

School board president Iris Taylor said of Vitti's work in the district: "While we have much work to do, we are very proud we aren't standing where we were two years ago."

Some education experts say making significant progress addressing the district's academic problems could take three to five years. 

Vitti thanked the crowd for embracing change and said it was an honor to be superintendent in Detroit.

"I would not want to be in any other city or any other district. This work can't be done in a more important place," Vitti said. "All of our children are gifted and talented … All they need is a shot.

Tenecha Bland, a program director with the nonprofit Developing Kids, attended Vitti’s address and was pleased with his work and vision for the district.

“I am excited for young people across the city and all the opportunities he has provided for them in art and music,” Bland said. “He really understands that all people are different learners.”


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