Our Editorial: Build a better Detroit school district

The Detroit News

Mackinac Island

Nikolai Vitti, the new superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, started his job last week, earlier than initially anticipated. Given the workload ahead of him, it’s a positive development. And this week he’s up on the island for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference.

Vitti should use the conference to build relationships and make connections that will help him as he embarks on this difficult task. He will need the business and philanthropic community’s full support if he’s going to find success when so many of his predecessors have failed.

The conference kicks off this morning with a panel discussion about the future of the Detroit school district. Vitti, along with John Rakolta Jr., CEO of Walbridge and co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, will be on hand.

The panel is titled “Rebuilding Detroit schools for tomorrow’s opportunities,” and while that sounds like a good goal, we recommend taking a different approach.

For too many years, the focus has been on rebuilding a district that has continually slipped financially and academically. It’s not salvageable in its current state.

Vitti must look at his job as building something new. He will need to streamline a bloated administration and hire a staff that is competent and trustworthy. Building principals must be strong leaders who can attract and train the best possible teachers.

Similarly, the district needs right-sized in a way that still serves the neighborhoods while cutting unnecessary costs from operating too many buildings. As enrollment has steeply declined the past decade, DPSCD’s facilities should reflect these new realities.

Vitti would also be smart to partner with interim chief Alycia Meriweather, who is going to serve as a senior adviser until her contract ends June 30. If she is willing to stay on after that, Meriweather could be a huge help to Vitti. She has earned the trust of teachers, as well as the respect of many in the community.

Her work this last year to partner with business leaders to retool the district’s Randolph Career and Technical Center is an excellent example of what community relationships can make possible. Vitti should build off this effort, and help jump start other projects. Business leaders are already looking to start similar work in another Detroit school, with a focus on job training in other fields, including health care.

Vitti has made comments that make it seem he’s open to transformational change. For instance, he has said New Orleans, which chartered nearly all its district schools after Hurricane Katrina, is a model.

“Nationally, New Orleans is considered, for a lot of people, as the place to go if you’re interested in urban education transformation,” Vitti said in a former interview. “I want to replicate the energy, the vision, the strategy, the purposefulness around transformation. Not through charter schools, but through traditional public schools.”

That’s a positive vision, although he may find that kind of transformation difficult, while still dealing with union constraints and other roadblocks.

Vitti should tap top education reformers, such as former Louisiana schools chief Paul Pastorek, who oversaw the New Orleans overhaul, as well as others like Michelle Rhee, who is credited with turning around Washington, D.C.’s public schools when she led the district.

Others have done this work successfully, but few other districts are as challenged as Detroit. That’s why Vitti should build something totally new and separate the district from its past failures.