New Detroit schools chief sees renaissance for district

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit schools’ incoming superintendent Nikolai Vitti wants to turn the city into a “mecca of traditional public school transformation” by boosting enrollment, attracting talented educators and competing academically with charter schools.

“I think when public schools get it right, they get it right better than charter schools,” Vitti said on Saturday, one day after the Detroit Public Schools Community District board unanimously approved his five-year contract. “It is offering an educational experience that is pure in its delivery, directly tied to the community through taxes.

“It’s just more organic and I think it resonates,” he said. “I think there’s a great appetite for a pure, traditional public education, nationally and locally, which can inspire educators to come to Detroit.”

Vitti, 40, and currently the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Flordia, pointed to New Orleans, where the education system was reinvented around a charter school model.

New Orleans chartered the majority of its public school system after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Nationally, New Orleans is considered, for a lot of people, as the place to go if you’re interested in urban education transformation,” Vitti said. “I want to replicate the energy, the vision, the strategy, the purposefulness around transformation. Not through charter schools, but through traditional public schools.”

Vitti’s contract must still be approved by the financial review commission overseeing the district’s finances, but he said he expects to be in Detroit the week of May 22. His salary starts at $295,000 and is slated to rise over the next five years, ending at $322,000.

He will join a transition team with interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, whose contract expires June 30. Vitti will assume the superintendency on July 1.

Vitti hopes Meriweather will remain with the district, in a role to be determined.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to meet her or even to talk to her yet, but I’ve been impressed with her work from afar. I think she’s been an excellent ambassador of the district, of the employees and of the children especially,” he said. “I believe that it’s just a matter of us getting to know each other and me understanding just what my cabinet looks like: which post are open, which ones are not.

“I would certainly believe that there is a place for her on the team. It’s just trying to figure out where.”

Board President Iris Taylor described Vitti as “a strong leader and change agent who is qualified to move this district forward.

“We are focused on providing the best education possible for students in Detroit,” Taylor said after the board’s meeting on Friday.

Joining the city’s renaissance

Detroit schools face a host of challenges that Vitti is eager to address — from teacher vacancies and declining enrollment to charter schools and academic struggles. Those issues must be addressed if the district hopes to join the city’s comeback narrative.

“I don’t think we can talk about a renaissance of the city from an economic redevelopment point of view if we’re not talking about the renaissance of our school district,” he said. “Because ultimately we want individuals to live within the city and come back to the city, but they have to have solid school options for that to happen.”

He can’t solve any of it alone, he said.

“At the top of my to-do list is engagement. I look forward to engaging individuals within the district, so that obviously includes the district office, but more importantly teachers, principals and the school board, asking about where are now and where do we need to go,” Vitti said. “I need to ask the questions that I always ask: What’s working, what’s not, and what do we do differently?”

John Rakolta Jr., co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, the city’s biggest education reform initiative, said on Saturday he has not met Vitti but he applauds the elected school board for making what he calls a “fine” selection and choosing the candidate they wanted to lead the district.

Rakolta, CEO of Detroit-based Walbridge, said he was speaking on behalf of himself, not the coalition which was created in 2014 as a group of education, civic, business, religious, labor and community leaders to develop recommendations to the governor for improving education in Detroit.

“I have a friend in Jacksonville. After hearing Mr. Vitti was a candidate, he called me and said it was a great day for Detroit and a sad day for Jacksonville. He said Vitti had done more for Jacksonville than any single person in a decade or two,” Rakolta said. “That is quite an endorsement.”

Charter school competition

One pressing challenge Vitti said must be addressed is competition from charter schools, which have popped up throughout the city and drawn students — and state dollars — away from Detroit’s traditional public schools.

Vitti blasted area charter schools’ business approach to education, saying it amounts to “experimenting on our children.”

“I think it’s infuriating to see…irresponsible policy trying to inspire an entrepreneurial, free market enterprise approach to education,” he said. “This isn’t like offering incentive money to create a local grocery store or gas station. Our children are more valuable than that and so is their future.”

He said the district should work with legislators to strengthen regulations for charter schools, ensuring authorizers have a background in education.

“I think taxpayers, and the city as a whole, would prefer that the education delivery in large part is offered through traditional public schools,” he said. “I think that’s already happening for the most part, but I think we need to market and tell that story with more conviction and strategy.”

Preparing students for the future

Schools must also address widespread academic performance struggles, including releasing unprepared graduates into the workforce, Vitti said. This includes installing “career academies” in all schools to give students access to unique curricula, internships and other opportunities.

“Oftentimes the high school diploma isn’t necessarily a springboard to college or the world of work. There should be a bridge that is built between every high school and the city as it relates to universities, colleges and work,” he said. “Because when it’s not explicit, kids fall through the cracks and nothing happens.”

Enrollment increases – and the associated bump in revenue – will be a key component to the district’s revival, Vitti said.

No one area is more important than the others, Vitti said.

“I want to be clear that it’s not one strategy that’s superior to the other; it’s not about focusing on one set of parents over another,” he said. “We have to be nimble and strategic as a school district to do both. That’s the only way to increase enrollment and improve performance.”

As enrollment increases, so will the demand for educators in a district already facing teacher vacancies. Officials must offer competitive wages and consider creative incentives to attract talent, Vitti said.

“We have to dramatically enhance the teacher experience in Detroit. That means that we have to take a hard look and conduct a clear analysis of why teachers aren’t coming and why are they leaving,” he said. “You can’t talk about retention and recruitment if you’re not talking about salaries. Pay will motivate individuals to at least try teaching in our district and certainly stay if there’s another offer.”

Better pay and perks will help combat the tendency of some teachers to use the district as a “farm system for the suburbs,” Vitti said.

‘Gravitational pull’ back to Detroit

The contract approved for the Metro Detroit Native lasts five years, but Vitti is willing to look beyond.

“I was adamant about a five-year contract. I don’t think you can look at the transformation process and rebuilding the school system if you’re not looking long term. This is not just another stop on my leadership journey,” he said. “I don’t think it’s absurd to think about staying beyond five years, but that’s right now the immediate focus.”

Vitti’s arrival later this month will cap a journey that began when he watched the district regain local control.

“There was a pull, a gravitational pull to come back after (the district emerged from) years of being run by state emergency managers,” he said. “I’m just excited to start. I’ve been inspired by the beginning of the transformation, or the renaissance, of the city from an economic point of view. Watching things from afar, I’ve always thought about coming back to Detroit.”

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed to this story.