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Low-performing schools among Vitti’s early targets

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city’s incoming schools chief will focus on low-performing schools and those scheduled to transfer to the Detroit Public Schools Community District from the disbanding Educational Achievement Authority during his first months.

Nikolai Vitti outlined his first 100 days as superintendent of the district in a document he shared with school board members during his interview process. He gave a copy to The Detroit News on Wednesday.

Vitti aims to meet with dozens of stakeholders including board members, budget staff, union leadership, city officials, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, as well as focus groups with teachers, principals and other members of the community.

“All of the activities are founded on the opportunity to hear directly from you,” Vitti wrote in a letter to district staff that he released to The News. “These sessions will allow us to learn from one another and begin to develop the problem-solving structures to improve the systems and processes that support our students.”

Vitti “will be in Detroit by the weekend,” he said Wednesday, as he worked on packing up his Florida home. The school board approved his contract last week after selecting him to lead the district when Meriweather’s contract expires June 30. He will spend the upcoming weeks working on a transition team alongside Meriweather.

Board member LaMar Lemmons said his colleagues are “cautiously, very optimistic” about Vitti’s arrival.

“We like the direction he’s going,” he said. “We’re pleased with our selection thus far.”

Lemmons said he plans to spend his meeting with Vitti discussing teacher retention and recruitment, increased enrollment and student performance.

“Also, (I want to talk about) the plan for how we can balance our budget and see that these buildings are of quality,” he said. “From my perspective, the district has been under almost 20 years of neglect in terms of the quality of the buildings.”

Lemmons said Vitti is expected in Detroit this weekend, “scoping out houses.”

“One thing we like is that he’s determined to do two things: To live in the city and educate his children in Detroit public schools,” Lemmons said. “He won’t be like others who serve food that they themselves won’t eat.”

Vitti, 40, has four kids who will be in the third through 11th grades.

“Our commitment is to place our kids in the school system,” Vitti said in a News interview Saturday.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said she was encouraged to see union leadership included on Vitti’s list of initial meetings.

“I’m glad that we are actually on his agenda,” she said.

Bailey said Vitti should be quick to address any potential curriculum changes.

“What is our academic plan moving forward? What is the curriculum that we’re going to be using? If there are going to be changes, we need know up front what those changes are going to be,” she said.

Vitti said he plans to use information, opinions and ideas shared during his meetings to form a master plan for the future of the district.

“We will build off of the current academic plan that was reflective of stakeholder feedback and the 100 Day Plan to form the basis of our first strategic plan, which will guide our decision making process in the future,” Vitti wrote in his letter.

The strategic plan will be presented this fall to the school board for approval, he said.

“I think the strategic plan will really be the map and the guide to begin the renaissance of the school district,” Vitti said in a previous interview with The News.

Bailey said she’s encouraged by Vitti’s track record in Florida, including opening new schools for students with dyslexia and autism, working with local unions and competing against charter schools.

“Right now, I think we have a great opportunity to move the district forward in a positive way,” she said. “The proof is going to be in the pudding when he gets here and we see what he’s going to do.”

Bailey also said she hoped Vitti could improve morale after it was hurt by years of emergency management.

“I believe that under emergency management, the culture was very punitive when it came to teachers. People just feel disrespected in the district,” she said. “We shouldn’t feel afraid to be advocates for students because that’s what we are.”

Vitti has cited his five-year contract as evidence of his commitment to Detroit’s district and as a signal that years of turmoil may end with his hire.

“I enter this opportunity knowing that you are tired of rotating leaders, broken governance structures, and politics that appear to be more about adults and ideology than children and education,” he said.

Vitti opened his letter emphasizing his 15 years of education experience in traditional, urban public schools and districts. He has served in the Bronx, Miami and Jacksonville, most recently in Jacksonville as superintendent of Duval County Public Schools.

But he does not consider himself an outsider in Detroit, he said.

“Although for some of you I may appear as an outsider, and to some extent I am, I was born and raised in Metro Detroit and left for college. Despite other professional opportunities being offered, I only applied to this position because I love this city and deeply believe in its future and children,” Vitti said.

“It was time for me to stop working to improve the outcomes of children in other urban communities and bring my experience, success and commitment to where it was needed most — Detroit.”

hfournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

Twitter: @HollyPFournier