$3M grant to bring Detroit teachers to parents

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit’s public schools have three million new dollars to spend on innovative programs. Some of it will be used to make amends.

Officials from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced the $3 million grant and outlined the programs Wednesday at Davison Elementary and Middle School, where seventh-graders greeted visitors and the podium stood beneath dangling Easter decorations.

Davison Middle School language arts teacher Michelle Pizzo, left, has already made 30 of the home visits that are part of programs to be funded by a $3 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, right, told parents at the announcement to demand excellence.

The programs are tied to parental involvement, early childhood development and teacher visits to students’ homes.

“Instead of expecting parents to come to us,” said superintendent Nikolai Vitti, “we’re going to go to parents. We’ll build a relationship beyond tests and beyond homework.”

In some cases, he conceded, the visits are needed — and the relationships are distant — because of the district’s failures when today’s parents were hopeful schoolkids.

“Our parents don’t necessarily know how to feel comfortable” with the school system, Vitti said, and they may lack the skills the new programs are designed to impart. If they’re not involved with their children’s schools, or even their children’s homework, “it’s often based on their own experiences.”

The three new initiatives are the Parent Academy, designed to promote and improve parental involvement; the Kindergarten Transition Program, intended to grow long-term improvements by strengthening roots; and the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program, a more engaged and personalized supplement to the standard parental visits to schools.

The academy, free to parents, will incorporate classes, training and workshops offered not only at schools but at libraries, community centers, churches and mosques. Vitti mentioned topics ranging from promoting literacy in the home to filling out college financial aid forms.

It will also encompass the Kindergarten Bootcamp, a summer program aimed at both pre-kindergarten students and their parents.

As for the home visits, one of the instructors involved in the pilot effort said she has already seen results. Michelle Pizzo, who teaches seventh-grade language arts at Davison, volunteered her afternoons and weekends to spend time in 30 homes late last year.

“Absolutely,” she said, those students have improved in class. “Even with the ones I haven’t visited, they know there’s an opportunity for me to come, so they’ve been on their best behavior.”

The only downside, Pizzo said, has been a few unwelcome pounds. Parked on the Hamtramck-Detroit border, Davison has a large Bangladeshi population, and parents in that demographic have greeted her with lavish and heartfelt meals. On a Saturday with two visits — and two encounters with meat- or vegetable-filled samosas followed by feathery desserts — it’s only polite to eat amply, twice.

“I’ve wondered why mom doesn’t come and participate” at school, she said. In the homes, with her students translating, she has discovered that it’s not a lack of interest, but rather unfamiliarity with the language and the process.

“In the little English they know,” she said, they acknowledge a shared responsibility and a bond. “They say, ‘You’re mom. You’re mom.’”

If that makes Vitti the honorary dad, it’s just one more responsibility atop a stack of them.

Recruited from a district in Jacksonville, Florida, 11 months ago, he grew up in Dearborn Heights. He lives now in the University District and has four children in Detroit public schools.

The district cited a 2014 Wayne State study Wednesday that showed Detroit with the smallest percentage of two-parent homes in Southeast Michigan. Education, he said — better education, and a better connection to families — is one of the solutions to that and most any other problem.

“It’s not buildings. It’s not arenas,” he said. “It’s the school system that’s going to transform Detroit.”


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn