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Partnership brings teacher mentor program to Detroit schools

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit Public Schools Community District on Wednesday detailed a $5 million commitment toward a mentorship program for young district teachers over the next five years.

The district launched the professional development program this school year with a $650,000 contribution from the GreenLight Fund organization to fund expert training support from New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit that's model is being used in 400 school districts across 27 states.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, left, and Rishi Moudgil, executive director of the GreenLight Fund, discuss a new mentor program for Detroit teachers.

The mentorship program, which is pairing the district's veteran teachers with new Detroit school teachers, is part of the district's three-year strategic plan, Blueprint 2020, said DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

"We've seen some strong improvement we need to accelerate, scale and continue that improvement. This allows us to focus on exceptional talent," Vitti told reporters during a news conference inside the Fisher Building.

"This investment and many more are about making good on what we should have been doing for children at scale in the city. I'm excited about this announcement and future investments because we are a district on the rise."

The district, Vitti said, has hired more than 200 teachers in the past year. Of those, more than 100 are new to the profession. The district wants to develop, support and retain them, Vitti said. 

Under the partnership, about 100 veteran teachers have been identified to serve as mentors, working with the new district teachers as they acclimate.

The district is providing a $700 stipend to its mentor teachers to compensate them for a four-day institute led by NTC staff in Detroit as well as weekly, one-hour sessions with one or two new teachers.

The GreenLight Fund, which focuses its work on building coalitions in high-poverty urban communities, was founded in Boston and launched efforts in Detroit in 2016.

Last summer, the fund convened a coalition of city residents, investors and local leaders and partnered with the district to identify gaps for the city's low-income families and children. Ultimately, they decided to invest in the New Teacher Center program, officials said.

"Our sole focus is to help shift outcomes and better prosperity for families here in Detroit," said Rishi Moudgil, GreenLight's executive director. "We think that Detroit kids deserve the best."

Vitti and other program partners said they believe that the mentor program will attract new talent to the city and further decrease its teacher vacancies.

Two years ago, the district had 275 open positions. Today, they are down to about 60, he said. The district also has created more teacher positions and added full-time music, art and physical education teaching staff.

There were 22 schools fully staffed when he took over as superintendent and now that's true of about 65 schools.

Karen Pastor is among the mentor teachers taking part in the program. A 20-year veteran of the district, Pastor, a third-grade teacher at Munger Elementary-Middle School, is working with Samantha Ciaffone, a new first-grade teacher there. 

"Twenty years ago, I walked into 38 kids, a bunch of curriculum and me by myself," Pastor said. "Now that Dr. Vitti has brought this into the district, young teachers like Samantha have someone they can talk to. I'm here to help her develop to the teacher she will become."

Ciaffone said when she arrived in the fall, she was pleased to learn that she would have the help.

"It's nice to be able to go to her with questions. She'll give me the resources to go to. Those resources that I didn't know were there," she said. "She's giving me all of these directions but not directives."

Desmond Blackburn, CEO of the California-headquartered New Teacher Center, said 1.8 million students across the country are impacted by the work of the organization that's being carried out in such districts as New York, Baltimore and Miami.

It's led to improvements in student learning and teacher retention, in some cases, has gone up by 11 to 15 percent, he said.

"At the end of the day, we want children to learn and learn at a more and more rapid pace," he said.