Jacques: Teacher hunt still stymies Vitti

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti

Nikolai Vitti is getting ready to start his second school year at the helm of the worst urban school district in the country. And while he is working hard to move the Detroit Public Schools Community District beyond its troubled past, some entrenched roadblocks remain.

Top among them is Detroit’s longstanding teacher shortage. Given the city’s struggles, the district’s reputation and other shortfalls, DPSCD has struggled to attract enough teachers, leading to overflowing classrooms and long-term substitutes. Vitti has made progress. Last August, the district faced 425 teacher vacancies. After aggressive recruiting, Vitti whittled that number to 200 vacancies at the start of this summer. Now it’s less than 100, and most of those are special education positions.

“We are definitely making progress,” Vitti says. “We are getting to a point of doing what we should be doing, and we are getting closer to our ideal.”

According to a comprehensive staffing plan, the district aims to recruit broadly from teacher programs around the country, including at historically black colleges and universities. And Vitti says the district will soon be announcing a new residency program, with help from philanthropic partners, to establish a more long-term teacher pipeline. 

Vitti is also open to hiring teachers from alternative certification programs that have been approved by the state, including Teach for America and a new program in Michigan called Teachers of Tomorrow. He says about 10 percent of the district’s hires come from these programs. Yet he’s gotten pushback by the teachers union and some school board members to limit those options. 

What should matter is a teaching candidate’s caliber. Texas-based Teachers of Tomorrow is now in seven states. Dave Saba, chief development officer, says more than 2,000 prospective Michigan teachers have applied to the program, and out of the 214 admitted, 80 are now teaching in the state. Saba says Detroit is a focus for the program. 

Detroit’s teacher shortage could also jeopardize other exciting efforts, including the redevelopment of formerly defunct vocational programs. Last fall, the Randolph Career and Technical Center opened to students after a $10 million renovation, largely funded through outside business investment. Now, a similar overhaul is taking place at Breithaupt.

The Legislature, as part of the district’s 2016 bailout, allowed DPSCD to hire non-certified teachers, and this is an excellent opportunity for the district to find experienced trade professionals. Jeff Donofrio, the city of Detroit’s workforce development director, has worked closely with the district and says these schools have room for growth but they are constrained by teacher and staff shortages. To Vitti’s credit, the district has been hiring experts who aren’t teaching certified for these positions

The district must get more competitive in its salaries, if it wants to attract teachers from better-paid suburban districts and charter schools, or other professions. The union has now agreed to letting experienced teachers come into the district at a higher pay scale but there’s room for additional compromise.

DPSCD should throw out the welcome mat for anyone who is qualified and has a passion for Detroit children. 

As Saba says, “How can you disparage someone who is wanting to help kids in Detroit?” 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques