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Detroit’s new superintendent said Wednesday the district should brace for “significant” changes, from hiring new staff and bumping teacher pay to addressing empty school buildings.

The reforms “will come initially in increments,” Nikolai Vitti said during a panel discussion at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. “I think the most significant changes will come in the 2018-19 school year.”

Vitti’s plans are designed to include the Detroit Public Schools Community District in the city’s renaissance, he said.

“I think there also needs to be recognition that despite talk and reality of a city revitalization economically, that it will never reach its apex without a great public school system,” Vitti said.

“It will get better. Businesses will invest and money will be generated, but it will never reach its apex without people moving back into the city and people will not move back into the city in large numbers unless they have a school system that they feel comfortable sending their kids to every day.”

Teacher hiring and other organizational shifts are underway, with hopes to have the district “as close to fully staffed by the fall as possible,” he said.

The district and teachers union are discussing a new contract that would provide a bump in salary, said Vitti, who has argued higher wages are key to recruiting more teaching talent.

The district’s students also need to better prepare its graduates for college and the workforce, the superintendent said.

“If you look at high school, I think you could make the argument that the 11th and 12th grade experiences are largely irrelevant today,” Vitti said. “I think the opportunity in the future is making that 11th and 12th grade year a springboard to college or the world of world and being very explicit and intentional about how to do that.”

Vitti mentioned career academies, advanced placement classes and dual enrollment programs as possible strategies.

Vitti said in Detroit he will straddle a line between competing against charter schools and encouraging more oversight for those with documented success.

“I’m completely willing to work with charter schools that are proven, but my responsibility is for the 46,000 students in the traditional public school system, and that will be my obsession,” he said. “I think we’ve had enough time in Michigan, in Detroit and nationally to recognize that charter schools are not the at-scale solution to improving public school education. That is defined.”

Another longterm goal of Vitti’s is to address the district’s collection of unused real estate: empty buildings once used for schools or other programs. Some will be permanently closed and sold, others repurposed for district initiatives and the rest saved for use when enrollment rebounds and new schools are required.

“There’s no doubt in the next two the three years we’re going to have to make some hard decisions about the use of our buildings,” he said. “I’m not looking to make any of those decisions now. I think we have to rebuild the school district organizationally and then make the decisions in the next few years.”

Herman Gray, president and CEO of United Way in Southeastern Michigan, sat beside Vitti on the panel and expressed hope for the new superintendent’s vision for the district.

“I think the stars are aligning in a way that make sense. We have a clean slate from a financial perspective (after a new district last summer), we have a high performing elected school board, we have a proven leader who’s getting started,” Gray said. “I think there’s a sense in the community that it’s about time, and we need to get to the transformative work of educating our youth.”

John Rakolta, co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, listed “three gigantic wins” for the new district: an elected school board, debt relief and the disbanding of the Educational Achievement Authority.

Despite needed improvements, Vitti said he has witnessed in his first week “pockets of excellence” in the district that make him comfortable choosing traditional city public schools for his four children next year.

“I see pockets of great teaching happening. I see pockets of great programing,” he said. “My challenge and opportunity (as superintendent) is scaling that.”

HFournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

Twitter: @HollyPFournier

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