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New Detroit schools superintendent says he's "in it for the long haul"

Nikolai Vitti
via Twitter
Nikolai Vitti

Detroit’s new schools superintendent knows he’s taking on a tough job, but he’s also convinced the troubled district can turn around, and prove that “traditional urban public education works.”

Nikolai Vitti has started laying the groundwork for that. He took over as superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District last week.

It’s a time of massive transition. For the first time in many years, the district is mostly back under local control--and in relatively good financial shape, thanks to a state-led restructuring last summer to prevent it from going bankrupt.

But years of decline, instability and state emergency management took a lasting toll. Vitti faces some big challenges right off the bat.

One of the biggest is a severe teacher shortage. The district is short more than 260 teachers, with many classroom vacancies filled by long-term subs or other school staff.

Vitti says fixing that will take a mix of short and long-term strategies, but there’s no getting around the fact that Detroit teachers need better pay.

“Our teachers work, I think, much harder and have a heavier lift than teachers in the suburban districts,” he said, “and they should be paid more, bottom line.”

DPSCD is currently negotiating a new contract with the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Vitti thinks that process should wrap up soon. Teachers should see a pay boost, but “in no way will it be at the level that they deserve,” he said.

Vitti says the district’s current budget surplus stems largely from there being so many unfilled positions. If schools were fully staffed, the budget would be much tighter.

While Lansing’s intervention relieved Detroit schools of its debt load and provided something of a fresh start, many people, including the district’s final emergency manager, argued that it didn’t provide enough money to sustain DPSCD in the long term.

Vitti says that right now, he and the district’s newly-elected school board can only try and boost enrollment, and get creative with the existing budget. Beyond that, it may need to seek more help from Lansing or “pursue some private strategies” to get money for things like much-needed building repairs.

Another big challenge will be working with the Michigan Department of Education to implement partnership agreements for improving 24 low-performing schools. They include eight schools returning to DPSCD from the failed Education Achievement Authority.

Vitti thinks those agreements are the “right structure to allow for the new systems [and] partnerships to come in to support kids and teachers at a different level. To demonstrate improvement, but realistic improvement, over the next couple of years.”

Vitti is confident State Superintendent Brian Whiston will be “great partner” in this effort. He praised Whiston for leading the way on partnership agreements as an alternative to closing low-performing schools, which had been the State School Reform Office’s plan until it was forced to back off.

Vitti said the partnership resolution was a key issue for him as he debated coming to Detroit.

“I’m not going into a situation to be the hatchet man,” he said. “I will make difficult decisions regarding our budget and personnel, that’s part of my job. But I’m not coming in to close schools. That’s not who I am.”

Other big changes are in store. Vitti wants to have more conversations with people throughout DPSCD before putting together a long-term strategic plan for the district.

While that’s in the very beginning stages, Vitti wants it to focus on three big things: an “obsession” with building up a strong core of talented teachers and principals; getting the right curriculum in place, and restoring a fuller range of programming throughout the district; and a focus on the “whole child,” including wraparound services meant to help struggling students and their families.

Vitti hopes to present that plan to the school board in the fall. In the meantime, he’s settling into the job and readjusting to life in his hometown, after a career that’s taken him around the country. He was most recently superintendent of schools in Duval County, Florida.

Vitti stressed that he signed a five-year contract, and he’s “in it for the long haul.”

“We’re going to do a lot in a short amount of time, but we can’t look at this as a one-to-two year process,” he said. “We’re rebuilding a district.

“I deeply believe in this city, and I deeply believe in public education. I also believe that when we get this right, it’ll be the story that resonates nationally…the national story that proves to countless critics, often politicians, that traditional urban public education works for children--at scale, not in pockets.”

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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