Jacques: A game changer for Detroit schools?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Kudos to the Detroit school board.

The newly elected board surprised a lot of people Tuesday in choosing Nikolai Vitti to be the next superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District. He still has to accept the offer. Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather’s contract ends in June.

Those who know Vitti and are familiar with his work in Duval County, Florida, are hopeful that he can be the guy to turn things around for Detroit schools.

He needs to be. Because it’s now or never.

Vitti seems very aware of the challenges facing him in this new job. And if he can prove a game changer in Detroit — the lowest-performing large urban district in the country — it would also be a serious boost to his career.

The eyes of the nation are on Detroit schools, and many education experts are keenly interested in what progress the schools will make (if any), now that the district is back under an elected board.

Detroit parents, teachers and business leaders are watching, too.

The school board had narrowed its choices between two candidates: Vitti and River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman.

Between those two, Vitti comes with the best experience to approach Detroit schools, which have suffered from years of declining enrollment and academic failure.

Vitti has a broad swath of support in Florida, from that district’s school board to others in the community who worked with him, including Steve St. Amand, the North Florida president of Junior Achievement.

“Superintendent Vitti recognized the value of Junior Achievement’s hands-on, experiential programs since his first days in Duval County,” says St. Amand. “He clearly values education and anything that enhances the educational experience.”

Junior Achievement, which helps expose students to economic and business concepts, is also active in Detroit. This willingness to partner with community organizations bodes well for Vitti’s leadership style.

Vitti also encouraged the growth of school choice options within his district, from charter to magnet schools. Detroit families could benefit from similar opportunities.

The Duval County district, which is in Jacksonville, is one of the top-performing large urban districts in the country. Detroit, on the other hand, is the worst — and it has been since at least 2009 when it started participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ consortium of urban districts.

In 2015, as an example, 35 percent of Duval County students scored at or above proficient in fourth grade reading, compared to only 6 percent in Detroit. In fourth grade math, 41 percent of Duval County students hit that benchmark. In Detroit, just 5 percent did.

The 45,000 students attending DPSCD desperately need — and deserve — these kinds of results.

Of course, one person alone cannot make that happen, but Vitti knows how to manage a large operation. His Florida district is nearly three times the size of Detroit.

Now that the Detroit school board has made this decision, members should let Vitti do his job and let him be as innovative as he wants. Having landed such a strong candidate, the board should take a backseat and avoid meddling as much as possible.

Detroit needs him to stick around, following years of a revolving door of superintendents and other temporary leaders. Consistency is key. Vitti had stayed in his previous job since 2012, so that’s a positive sign. Plus, Vitti is from Dearborn Heights and has family in the area. That’s part of why the job attracted him.

He’s also hopeful he can make a difference.

As Detroit teacher Rita Carpenter said following Vitti’s selection: “I’m for us moving forward. He brings professionalism. He brings ideas. He brings his expertise and he’s committed. I believe in him.”

Detroit schools have had their share of negative attention. This is a positive change.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques