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New Detroit schools superintendent looks to tackle ongoing teacher shortage

Nikolai Vitti shakes hands at a teacher recruitment fair at Detroit's Martin Luther King, Jr. High School.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Nikolai Vitti shakes hands at a teacher recruitment fair at Detroit's Martin Luther King, Jr. High School

Detroit’s new schools superintendent says it’s “time to think differently” about some pressing issues—including the district’s chronic, ongoing teacher shortage.

It’s Nikolai Vitti’s first week on the job as head of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

On Monday, Vitti met with teachers’ union leadership, visited two schools, and stopped by a teacher recruitment fair. He said the lack of teachers in too many classrooms is taking a toll on everyone in DPSCD schools.

“Time and time again, you’re hearing issues of too many vacancies,” Vitti said. “You’re hearing conversations about loss of prep time, too large class sizes, and we have to address that issue, immediately.”

Right now, there are more than 260 teacher vacancies district-wide. About 160 of those positions are being filled by long-term substitutes; other teachers, administrators and school staff have been scrambling to fill the rest.

Vitti said it might be time to “streamline” the district’s hiring process, and “empower principals to select individuals” to speed up hiring.

Vitti said that wrapping up negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with teachers is another important step. The current teachers’ contract expires June 30th.

Vitti says he sees “a lot of changes on the horizon for the district,” but wouldn’t elaborate too much on that.  For now, he wants to spend some time on a “listening tour” of sorts, and get a sense of what’s going on throughout the district.

Vitti left his position as head of Duval County Public Schools in Florida to join DPSCD. He takes over a district that’s in substantially better financial shape than it was just a year ago, thanks to a state-sponsored restructuring. But as it emerges from more than seven years of state control with a newly-elected board and leader, it also faces a number of major challenges, including the teacher shortage, high rates of chronic absenteeism, and lagging student achievement.

DPSCD officials admit they’ve had trouble attracting and retaining teachers for several years. They hope a combination of the district’s financial “fresh start,” the transition back to local control, and a new, better teacher contract might help start to fill in the gaps.

But after years of cuts under state oversight, DPSCD teachers’ pay and benefits still lag significantly behind most competing school districts. And district officials point out that teacher shortages are a growing problem everywhere, as teacher colleges churn out fewer graduates.

Steven Josephson, who came to Monday’s job fair to looking to get back into Detroit schools after a year off trying to get special certification, says he has a realistic view of the district’s mix of new opportunities and ongoing challenges.

But Josephson says right now, he’s hopeful. “There are people that want to come to Detroit,” he said. “I’m one of them, I moved here from Colorado. I chose specifically to teach in Detroit over anywhere else. My wife teaches in Detroit, and we love the work we do.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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