New Detroit schools chief known as change agent

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Detroit school board member LaMar Lemmons' name.

Detroit’s new schools chief is known in his former district as a reformer who produces quick results while at times upsetting those swept up in the changes.

Nikolai Vitti, 40, took over as superintendent Tuesday after his contract was approved earlier this month by the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Officials selected him to replace former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who is serving as a senior adviser until her contract expires June 30.

Vitti previously spent more than four years as superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. The district serves more than 128,000, has 198 schools and ranks as the 20th largest school district in the country. His new district is the largest in the state of Michigan and serves 48,000 students.

“I think one of the greatest aspects about him is the fact that he talks with the community; he talks with the parents. He doesn’t blow you off and he doesn’t pacify you,” said Tim Sloane, a 48-year-old father of a seventh- and a third-grader in Duval County. “You can’t even get some of our elected officials to respond to our concerns but he responds within 24 hours — sometimes in an hour.”

Sloane wished Vitti well at his new post.

“I am hoping that the community is understanding and receptive,” he said. “Detroit has a history, just like we did, of academic failure overall. The community needs to understand that the status quo cannot remain.”

Bankole: Nikolai Vitti’s gamble with Detroit kids

Vitti, a Dearborn Heights native, is credited with increasing the graduation rate and improving the district’s annual “grade” from the state of Florida from “C” to “B.” He also reintroduced arts into every school, created magnet schools and invested millions into the district, according to Duval County district data and his supporters.

Almost 79 percent of Duval County seniors received their diploma in 2016, an increase of 11.1 percentage points since the district’s 2012 figure. The rate of African-American student graduations also jumped during Vitti’s tenure, from 62 percent to 75 percent, according to the data.

Duval board member Cheryl Grymes said she voted to hire Vitti in 2012 in part because of his reputation as a reformer.

“I was looking for somebody to come in and change things and that’s what he did,” she said. “I’m very sad to lose him. I think it’s a loss for not only our school district but also our community. He’s very well respected.”

Under Vitti, college readiness also improved, as measured by the number of Duval County seniors scoring high enough on their college placement exams to avoid remediation-level university courses. There was a 22 percent jump in reading and 41 percent increase in math from 2011-12 to 2015-16, according to district data.

Also since 2012, 10 of 11 under-performing schools previously identified by the state for closure improved their school grades, Vitti said. Eight saw enough improvement to escape sanctions and the others are expected to close the year with a C grade or better.

“We did this independent of outside partners or agencies,” Vitti said. “We owned the improvement as a school district.”

Vitti’s new district in Detroit is home to 24 under-performing schools that were targeted earlier this year by the state for closure. The district has since entered into a partnership agreement with the state to assist with turnaround efforts and avoid closures.

Prior to his time in Duval County, Vitti was the chief academic officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools in 2012 and was assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Miami-Dade Public Schools from 2010 to 2012.

He earned a doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in education, administration, planning and social policy. He received his master’s degree of education from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a master’s degree from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Florida criticism

While in Duval County, the rapid pace of change prompted occasional tension with staff who questioned the effectiveness of his policies and chafed at some of the district’s rigid expectations.

Some officials pushed for more results, including one board member who wrote Vitti an open letter last fall suggesting he look elsewhere for a job.

“She basically said she didn’t know why he hadn’t closed the achievement gap,” Grymes said of fellow board member Ashley Juarez. “(Vitti) has made significant progress in some of those areas but (closing the gap) is not something you do in four years.”

Juarez did not respond to requests for comment. Cathy Maycott, the board’s secretary, said Juarez was not available.

Vitti said “the facts never justified the critique” in the letter from Juarez.

“We were demonstrating improvements in this area and gaining clear momentum,” Vitti said. “The achievement gap has never been narrowed in a year or a few years. It takes persistence, resilience and a long-term strategy and effort.”

Vitti often turned to the philanthropic community, helping to attract tens of millions of dollars in investments that the district put in part toward recruiting quality teachers. The Quality Education for All Fund, built off $40 million in private-public money, funds a teacher residency program for undergraduates in the math and science fields who spend around a year and a half helping in classrooms while earning their master’s degrees in education in the evenings.

“They commit to three years of teaching math or science in (Duval County’s) historically underperforming schools,” said Trey Cesar, president of a nonprofit education advocacy program called the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

Cesar also was among many Vitti’s supporters who touted the return of arts and other programs to every Duval County school.

“One of the first things he and the board did when he first got here was ensure that there were art and music programs in every elementary school,” Cesar said. “He’s worked with us and others in the community to create additional mental health supports for kids.”

Detroit school board member LaMar Lemmons said restoring music programs ranks high on his wishlist for Vitti’s arrival to Detroit schools.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and says this: To take music away from African-American students is a crime. That’s the way we learn; it’s part of our culture,” Lemmons said. “For Dr. Vitti to bring music and the arts back is critical. It’s right up there with oxygen in terms of our needs.”

Building up art and music programs and improving academics were Vitti’s keys to competing against charter schools, Cesar said.

“(Vitti says) that we’re going to beat them at their own game,” Cesar said. “He’s a fierce competitor with everything, and I think he believes his role as the leader of the traditional public schools is to convince parents that the traditional public schools is where their kids should attend.”

Vitti also added a recruiter to the district’s office of choice to work on wooing families back to Duval County, according to Grymes. That and other efforts have resulted in the district’s traditional public schools maintaining an enrollment of around 120,000 students, despite an increase in charter schools from 17 in 2012 to 30 in 2017.

At least one critic did question whether Vitti was doing enough to combat charters in Duval County.

Teacher Chris Guerrieri, a frequent blogger who often targets the school district and Vitti, said the superintendent “talks a great game about charters but he has been charter schools’ best friend in the district.”

“He allows charter school after charter school to start,” said Guerrieri, who teaches middle school math and science at a Duval County school for students with intellectual disabilities.

Grymes said the administration has limited power to stop the process.

“We can vote against a charter school opening, but then what happens is it’s going to (get appealed to the Department of Education) in Tallahassee, and they’re going to overturn it. They always do,” she said. “What (Vitti) did to combat charters is he said we’re going to compete. We’re going to do what we can to market our schools so we’ll be your first choice.”

Rezoning a district

Sloane, the Duval County parent, called Vitti a “reformer” who turned struggling schools into magnet academies or reconfigured grade levels in each building. At least 11 new school programs debuted in Duval County last year, according to the district, including a school for students with autism, a military academy of leadership and another school focused on sports medicine and marketing, cybersecurity and video gaming.

“He offered his recommendation and then he put it before the community members,” Sloane said. “The community members actually got the chance for once to put the emotional aside and look at the data.”

Many of these initiatives resulted in students and teachers being “rezoned” to new schools if they were not participating in or eligible for the new program. When Oak Hill Elementary was selected for the autism program, former students were split up among three different schools.

“A lot of the community was very upset about that, but it needed to be done,” Sloane said. “He shook a lot things up, which was positive.”

Guerrieri called the rebranded schools “gimmicks” that he said do little to reform the district.

“We had one school that made consecutive failing grades, so he made it a K-2 school,” Guerrieri said. “All we did was move the kids around. We didn’t solve the problem.”

Guerrieri also criticized Vitti’s usage of a strict curriculum guide, which provides a schedule for teachers to follow in their lesson plans. The rigid approach leaves teachers unable to get creative or slow down when students need extra instruction, he said.

The guide was designed to get students ready for state assessments and to serve as an organizational tool for new teachers, Vitti said. More than 200 teachers were involved in the process of creating the standards.

“It also ensures that there is some consistency across schools considering the high transient rate of students,” Vitti said. “This ensures that when and if students move from one location with the district to another, which frequently happens, students can pick up where they left off as far as their learning.”

Karen Nuland, president of Duval County’s Parent Teacher Association, said Vitti kept parents involved, from candidate interviews to late-night town hall meetings.

“He has helped integrate PTAs as a parent voice in a lot of the things the district does. We always have a PTA representative at principal interviews and vice president interviews,” she said. “We have monthly meetings where we invite all the PTA presidents and he takes questions from the floor and sometimes he is there for an hour.”