Vitti: New ways to attack poverty

Nikolai Vitti

Each morning, our students enter the classroom with a diverse set of gifts, experiences and challenges. As educators, we must champion those gifts, be sensitive to their challenge and meet the needs of all students. It is our responsibility to educate every student. Each child embodies a boundless potential that is waiting to be realized.

Approximately 10 percent of our students are classified as homeless and 65 percent of our students qualified for free and reduced lunch in the 2016-17 school year. This percentage is likely higher but positive reform at the federal level has reduced the need to complete the forms that determine the status of poverty among our students. When a student’s most basic needs are not met due to poverty, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to focus on learning. For decades, our district and namely our teachers have fought through the injustices of poverty and empowered children to overcome disadvantages. However, the challenge in front of us now is to scale and expand those examples so they are not the exceptions but the norm.

Blueprint 2020, the district’s three-year strategic plan, outlines priorities that the school board and I have established based on the feedback of internal and external stakeholders. The priorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college- and career/technical-ready programming exists across the district and at every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources.

Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives. We can no longer be satisfied with celebrating isolated programs that improve a small number of students and schools, but must scale effective programs to ensure broader impact by placing mental health, medical and dental resources at schools for immediate and consistent access to students and families. Our wellness practices must improve to ensure that all students eat breakfast and lunch daily. Wellness also includes more opportunities for exercise and a commitment to mindfulness.

Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies. It’s time to hire more social workers and guidance counselors in our schools, not police officers. We must restore a curriculum that is reflective of our children’s socioeconomic, race/ethnic and language background with a strong dedication to literacy. That curriculum must be framed in understanding and appreciating the rich history of Detroit and service learning within our communities.

This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents. We will ask the entire community, especially our men, to mentor our boys through the 5000 Role Models initiative. School Advisory Councils will be established in all schools to allow teachers, support staff, alumni, business partners, faith-based leaders, parents and students to work with principals to share in the responsibility to improve our schools.

While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race. National and state policy, coupled with more progressive ownership of the problem by the business community, must strengthen access to livable wages, remove financial barriers to higher education, health care, job training and affordable, integrated and safe housing, and transform regressive penal codes. The Detroit Promise and Randolph investments are positive examples that need to be scaled. In the education context, per pupil funding in Michigan must improve and there needs to be a commitment to implementing a weighted student formula that provides districts with the resources to provide students in poverty with the support systems they need to succeed.

We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years that reflects the ambitions and interests of Detroiters. Now is the time to come together to support all of our children with the same expectations, passion and commitment as if they were our own.

Nikolai P. Vitti is superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Ongoing series

This is part of a series of editorials, columns and commentaries that will appear throughout the school year exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. Follow along at detroitnews.com/opinion.