Meriweather: Trust key for new DPSCD superintendent

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Building trust among staffers and following through on the district’s progress will be key when a new leader takes the helm at the Detroit Public Schools Community District, says interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather.

“You cannot move anything, I don’t care how gifted and talented and smart you are, you cannot move anything if you don’t have the trust of the people that you need to do the work,” she said.

Meriweather said she has built that trust during her 13 months on the job, beginning with an email to staff shortly after she was appointed by the district’s then-Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes in early March 2016.

She wrote about “the district having been in a long, hard winter and coming into spring,” Meriweather said of the transition from emergency management. “It really resonated with people because that’s exactly how we felt. The district culture a year ago was very toxic and very oppressed.”

But the old wounds are healing, Meriweather said, as are bruising issues last year that kept the district in the news: widespread sickouts, corruption indictments and financial woes.

“The common theme that I’ve heard in the past year, and this is just the truth, is that this is the first time (people have) felt hope in this district in X number of years,” she said. “And I’ve heard up to 32 years.”

The next superintendent should focus on continuing recent progress, Meriweather said.

“To be honest, (he’ll have) to follow through,” she said. “We’ve laid the groundwork to move this district in the right direction.”

Detroit’s school board is considering two candidates to replace Meriweather when her contract expires June 30. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, was in the city last week to interview for the position, followed by River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman on Monday. A third candidate dropped out.

Meriweather was not among the finalists selected by the school board, despite calls from the community for officials to grant her an interview.

“Most certainly I applied. I think obviously I applied because I wanted to continue this work,” she said. “I’m absolutely hopeful that the board will make the best decision in the best interest of the students.”

Meriweather declined to discuss either candidate but often echoed their comments in interviews. She and Coleman described emergency management as “toxic,” with Coleman also labeling the arrangement “an abusive relationship.”

Coleman worked as assistant superintendent/Region II superintendent in Detroit from 2008-11, including three years under then-Emergency Manager Robert Bobb.

Meriweather and Vitti expressed similar opinions on state-mandated school closures.

“I fundamentally believe that (the state’s School Reform Office) does not have the authority to close our schools,” said Meriweather, who filed a lawsuit to prevent closures.

State law gives the School Reform Office power to close schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent of the state for three consecutive years; district officials argue that the three-year clock was reset when Detroit schools were transferred last summer to a new, virtually debt-free district.

Vitti has said only local school boards should have the authority to close schools, and the decision should be made sparingly.

“I don't think there is anything worse in a community than closing schools,” he said during his interview last week. “I think it tears a hole in the community.”

Meriweather said she is confident she’s “done everything possible to move this district in the right direction.”

“The teachers basically put my name forward (to Rhodes) as someone who could lead this district during the tumultuous period,” Meriweather said

Meriweather has helped introduce initiatives including tuition-free Montessori, the “Vision to Learn” program providing eye exams and eyeglasses to students, and the “Data Dashboard,” which gives officials immediate access to population and performance information on each school.

“What I hear, the common theme is, we are in a better place now than we were a year ago,” Meriweather said. “I think we have the evidence to back that up.”

Students’ academic progress is measured with tests pinpointing growth targets for each year, Meriweather said. Achievement is measured, in part, by evaluating whether a student reaches his or her target.

All of the district’s “priority” schools, those that struggle the most, increased the percentage of students hitting their growth targets this year over last year, Meriweather said. Half the schools doubled their percentages.

Additionally, the district’s enrollment decline has slowed throughout the city, she said.

“I felt like the district was in a life-or-death situation and I wanted us to live — not just live, but survive and thrive,” Meriweather said of her goal one year ago. “I hope that as people look at the past year, they would recognize that there’s a lot of positive coming out of the district.”

hfournier@detroitnews.com

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@HollyPFournier