In the decades before Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti was hired, Detroit’s school district was one of the most challenged districts in America. In his first three years, Vitti was able to make stark improvements to turn the district around, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sidelining much of the progress being made.
Vitti laid out a few overarching objectives, including a strategy to increase student enrollment along with monitoring and measuring student academic achievement, maintaining fiscal integrity and hiring and investing in teachers, during his first five years as superintendent.
Now in his sixth school year, following a three-year contract extension through June 30, 2025, how does Vitti plan to steer the district back on course and into a prosperous future? One Detroit contributor Stephen Henderson sits down with Dr. Nikolai Vitti for a wide-ranging conversation.
Coming to viewers live from the School at Marygrove, Henderson sits down with Vitti to talk about how the 2022-2023 school year has kicked off, how the district has and continues to recover from COVID-19’s impact, and challenges with increased absenteeism.
Vitti shares details about a proposed 20-year facility plan that would include a $700 million investment in school buildings, as well as efforts to right-size the district. Plus, they examine the biggest needs for the district moving forward and how DPSCD is preparing students for their future careers.
This One Detroit Town Hall comes in conjunction with the release the DPSCD documentary, “We Went to Work, Courage Over COVID,” which details the district‘s efforts to help students and their families get through the pandemic.
Future of Work Town Hall Participants:
One Detroit Town Hall Guest | Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District
Dr. Nikolai Vitti was appointed as Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) on May 23, 2017, on a five-year contract. On December 8, 2021, the School Board extended his contract by an additional three years until June 30, 2025. In strong partnership with the School Board, Dr. Vitti has rebuilt the school district after two decades of disinvestment under State Controlled Emergency Management and was most recently named a finalist for Urban School District Superintendent of the Year.
Before arriving in Detroit, Dr. Vitti led Duval County Public Schools (DCPS), the 20th largest school district in the nation with approximately 130,000 enrolled students in 200 schools, and a fiscal budget of $1.7 billion. During his four and a half years at DCPS, the district ranked among the first to fourth highest-performing urban districts in the nation on the National Assessment for Education Progress. In addition, the district’s graduation rates increased from 67 percent in 2012 to 78.8 percent in 2016, surpassing all Florida urban districts in African-American graduation rates.
Under Dr. Vitti’s tenure, DCPS was recognized for its expansion of the arts, foreign languages, innovative school programming, and mental health and progressive discipline strategies. Dr. Vitti also successfully secured more than $40 million in local philanthropy to transform the district’s historically lowest-performing schools with a focus on human capital and technology infusion.
Dr. Vitti was previously chief academic officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, assistant superintendent for the Miami-Dade district and deputy chancellor at the Florida Department of Education. He also served children as a principal, dean of students, and teacher. He received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education from Wake Forest University. He also holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Biography provided by Detroit Public Schools Community District.
One Detroit Town Hall Host | Stephen Henderson, Contributor - One Detroit, Host - American Black Journal
Stephen Henderson is the current host of American Black Journal, WDET’s Detroit Today and former Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of The Detroit Free Press. A Detroit native, Henderson is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and the University of Michigan. He has worked previously as a reporter, editorial writer and editor at the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, where he covered the Supreme Court from 2003-2007.
Henderson’s work has been honored with more than a dozen national awards, including for work that is published in the book, “Best Newspaper Writing 2001.” Henderson connects to readers and viewers with perspective and passionate opinion. Follow Stephen Henderson on Twitter @SHDetroit.
Will Glover, Producer, One Detroit: Before the pandemic, Detroit Public Schools were making progress in addressing the issues the district faced while simultaneously charting a better path forward. Then…
Shaun Maloy, Program Supervisor of Family and Community Engagement: Schools closed.
Lanelle JonesJohnson, 3rd Grade Teacher: Oh, my God.
Narissa Donald, 3rd Grade Teacher: I had some anxiety.
Breale Holly, Student: I was scared.
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, DPSCD School Board President: I was shook.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District: It was scary.
Shaun Maloy: Just to think of how that would affect our city.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: The city communities were ravaged.
Janet Martinez, DPSCD Parent Volunteer: Food was needed out there.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Employees passing.
Nadia Louis, Student: My fears were that my family was going to get it.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Children’s parents passing.
Janet Martinez: People were getting desperate.
Anthony Rogers, Dean of Culture, Priest Elementary Middle School: I was Hurt. Sad. Depressed.
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry: I don’t care who you are.
Shaun Maloy: It was catastrophic, to be honest.
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry: We have been shook by COVID.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: How do you continue educating children when they’re home? The rest of the nation is using laptops, computers, Internet for teachers to connect with students, and we know that we have a digital divide.
Sharlonda Buckman, DPSCD Asst. Superintendent of Family and Community Engagement: That piece was critical. And I will say that our superintendent was very intentional in saying that we’re not going to piecemeal this and that we’ve got to make sure every child has a device to work on and to be engaged from an equity lens.
Will Glover: Now, as we emerge from the pandemic, what is the future of the Detroit Public School District and Michigan education look like?
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry: So now what we want people to understand is when we have the resources, there’s nothing we can’t and won’t do.
Sharlonda Buckman: You know, nothing is off the table.
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry: And that’s why this is so important.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: When we think about everything that happens on a porch, conversations and stories passed on generation from generation.
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry: If we don’t tell our story, people will create a story for us.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: You know, as we’re sitting here, I’m thinking about that home visit process.
Angelique Peterson-Mayberry: It’s been done so many times, especially when you’re talking about public education.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: And the district went above and beyond and met families where they were, which was back on that porch to have a conversation about, how are you? How is your child? What do you need? What can we do?
Stephen Henderson, Host of American Black Journal: Hi, I’m Stephen Henderson, and thanks for joining this One Detroit Town Hall. Today, we are talking about education, where we need to go, and how we get there. And I am joined by Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti. Dr. Vitti, welcome to One Detroit.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Thank you. Good to be with you in person, again.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah, I know. We haven’t seen each other in like three years, like everybody, right? So I want to start here. You are back full-time in-person, every school, every child. It’s been a long time since we were there, and a lot has changed. We lost a lot of ground during that time. Talk about the opening of school this year, the challenges ahead, and how you’re facing them.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Yeah, last year, all of our children were back in person. All schools were open, with the exception of about 2000 that were in the virtual school. But a lot of stop and goes last year, you know, surges, high infection rates, close contacting, and quarantine. So although we were back last year, it just didn’t feel normal. We were managing COVID. I would say 80% of my job, and probably teachers and principals, was just heavy on COVID.
This year, when we opened, and we’ve been open now for about 20 days, it just feels a lot better. It feels more normal. We’re still dealing with the challenges or lingering challenges of the pandemic, but it feels better. It feels more normal. And I think that there’s a positive energy of seeing the momentum and a clear pathway forward to give back to the student achievement work.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah, we lost ground here in Detroit. That doesn’t make us unique because most school districts had a hard time with it. But things visit on our kids, our families, and our community really differently than in other places. Talk about some of the things that happened that you have to focus on and, maybe, still have your concerns as we go forward.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, when you look at just running the district and what are the challenges that we’re facing? One, enrollment. We lost about 3000 students. When you look at where we were when the pandemic hit, March 2020, we are at the highest level of our enrollment. First time we saw an increase in two decades at about 51,000. We just turned the corner on the count. We are now down maybe 2000 to 1500 compared to our peak before the pandemic. So enrollment.
Another issue is disrupting the normal flow of attendance. Just last year, with online learning, devices, parents feeling comfortable, young children not going to school, not being comfortable online, and a lot of disruption to coming to school on a day-to-day basis. So last year, even though we were in-person, 80% of our students missed 18 or more days. So the regularity of coming to school every day was highly disruptive. The surges and online learning, but also just close contact and quarantining.
Students that weren’t vaccinated had to quarantine for 14 days even if they weren’t sick, and then that got dropped to ten, and all that negatively impacted student achievement. And that’s happening nationally. It’s not unique to DPSCD. We’re seeing lower levels of at and above grade-level performance.
On the positive side, when you look at last year’s state testing, DPSCD showed less learning loss than the entire state of Michigan and when you look at city charter schools. So, we continue to work. We used our curriculum, shifted online, and kept the schedule the same. So we dropped, but we didn’t drop at the same level as the rest of Michigan did and the rest of, for example, city charter schools did.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. So the attendance problem and the population problem. That’s something we have dealt with for some time. In Detroit, it’s not new because of the pandemic, but it may be more acute because of the pandemic. And then, there’s more pressure on you and everyone who works in the schools to fix it. At the same time, it’s not something you really have a ton of control over. So let me give you a chance to talk just a little bit about what you, as the superintendent, can even do to make sure kids are coming to school and make sure that you’re holding the population that you have.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, during the pandemic, I think what DPSCD… We were nationally recognized for our home visit process. So literally taking central office staff, school-level staff, and even some volunteers to go door-to-door and say schools are open. Or when we were online, we have a laptop for you and Internet access. And that has continued to be very effective. The traditional robocalls, even some of the media pieces, don’t always trickle down to a lot of our parents. So face-to-face contact was important throughout the pandemic and even now.
The other thing, just talking more about the importance of daily attendance through data. So not trying to overwhelm people with data. But what was really true last year, true in the past, but especially last year was if a student was only absent less than let’s say eight days, they were about four or five times more likely to be at and above grade level in literacy and math. So we’re trying to have that conversation more with families at the school level, to break down that data, to say coming to school matters, and it’s directly related to student achievement.
We’re also just trying to message and fight the notion that it’s okay to occasionally miss some days. Now, one or two days throughout the year, no big deal. But there’s still the idea that, well, I’m at school four days a week, not five, and that’s okay. And when you deal with some of the life challenges that our families deal with that makes sense, but then again, we need that child there every day. So I think the responsibility of the district at this point is to continue the messaging, the encouragement, and the problem-solving.
I think that’s also the last piece that we’re starting to get better at, which is giving resources to families to overcome some of the root causes of chronic absenteeism. For example, help with eviction and funds to pay the power bill. And some of that leads to less disruption from home-to-home moving, which then doesn’t lead the child to have to drive a longer distance, get on a different bus, or even have to transfer to a different school.
Stephen Henderson: Let’s talk about student learning and the changes that you were making before the pandemic and where you pick up with them now. You had some momentum with test scores and things like that. How do you get it back?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Yeah, you get it back by going back to what we were doing. So you’re right. Last time our students tested before last year was 2018 – 2019. And in 2018 – 2019 DPSCD showed more improvement at grade level performance than the entire state of Michigan and every grade level in literacy and math. And then the pandemic hit, and everything just slowed. And then we had to rethink systems and processes, you know, moving curriculum online, getting out laptops, teaching online, getting kids to log in, stay engaged, and all of that.
The positive is because we kept the curriculum going and we kept the schedule the same… Meaning some schools went to only 3 hours of online learning. We kept the full day, which is a challenge, but I think it was important to try to create as much consistency as possible. With that consistency, we showed less loss than the State of Michigan and Detroit charter schools. Now, we’ve got to keep our kids in school. And that’s going to be the focal point of this year.
We have to have kids come to school every day, consistently. Even when we’re dealing with issues of COVID, we’ve got to keep schools open. And I think if we’re going to do that, we’re going to see a bounce in student achievement this year. I’m optimistic that we can at least rebound to where we were before the pandemic hit. And then I think this year will be a year where we’ll see, once again, more improvement in at and above grade level performance than the state and comparatively the local charter schools.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. So remind me, how long have you been in the job now?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: This is my sixth school year.
Stephen Henderson: This is your sixth year. Okay. I remember when you came, one of the first conversations we had, we talked about charter schools and how you feel about charter schools. I want to give you a chance to talk just a little about the challenge of that structure, the fact that we have such a large charter school system in the city and the public schools, and what challenges that presents to sustaining public education the way we need to in Detroit.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, I think oftentimes, people like to draw me into the charter school debate.
Stephen Henderson: You threw yourself in there.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: I did. Fair. I don’t know if it was a trap that I fell in or what, but for me, it was important to be passionate about the work that we do. And when I was privileged to become superintendent, leaders before me, at least before Alisha Meriwether, were political appointments, they weren’t educators. They didn’t have a vision for the district. They didn’t have energy around what traditional public education could be about. So for me, it was about showing that we would be competitive again and embrace the competition.
I think, since those conversations five or six years ago, what I see now is that there are families that clearly feel more comfortable in charter schools, and that’s not going to change. And I never was anti-choice. I always felt there should be a choice. I still do. I think the challenge is, how do we create choice with guardrails and how do we create accountability for all schools in the city.
I know, for example, we have a single-letter grade system that we use for our schools. So we give a single-letter grade based on enrollment, attendance, chronic absenteeism, at and above grade level performance, and growth; we look at surveying of students, of families, and even staff, and all that comes together for a grade. And that was put on hold during the pandemic, but now that we’re back, those letter grades are issued. And if we’re going to continue to see lower letter grades, we’ve got to change the principal, we got to change the faculty, or we got to think differently about that school.
Where is that accountability throughout the city? And I know that me and the board are holding us accountable to a higher performance. What does that look like in these other charter schools where there isn’t that public conversation about performance? The state’s accountability system is all over the place and is really incoherent. So that’s what worries me, that the grass may seem greener on the other side, but from a performance point of view, how do we continue to hold all schools accountable in the city to higher levels of reform?
Stephen Henderson: Well, there’s not been a whole lot of interest at the state level to do that. But you use the word “competition.” And you’ve used that word many times and said you’re not shying from the competition with other schools by charter, or private, or whatever. So make the case to me about, hey, why should you have my children rather than a charter school or a private school?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, one, I’ll say that there are good city charter schools. There are. There are some that compete with our choice schools, our exam schools, and application schools. But I would say, when you’re looking at the landscape of Detroit and the options there, I think what’s different about DPSCD is, one, we have at and above grade level curriculum. We have very clear data systems that tell us where children are at and how they’re doing.
I also think we have better wraparound services around mental health, around guidance counselors and social workers now expanding after-school programming. But I think that there’s also, lastly, it goes back to reporting more accountability. You have an elected board of even individuals. They have to go out in the community to a church, sororities, fraternities, everyday homes, and alumni that they’re accountable to. And obviously, they have appointed me and empowered me to run the district. I don’t think that charter schools can say that.
Charter schools, many of their boards, they’re not Detroiters. Some are. I don’t think they have that neighborhood accountability presence. And when you look at performance over time, not all of them, I’m just wondering what are they doing differently to improve achievement. Or is it just a matter of enrollment? And at the end of the day, there’s a legacy linked to DPSCD that other charter schools don’t have and will never have.
DPSCD, DPS before, has created legends in the political space, the athletic space, the musical space, just leadership in general. And that legacy will continue to build on and, I think, strengthen. And with that legacy, comes more accountability. And lastly, sustainability.
I wonder whether some of these charter schools are more flashes in the pan about just quickly getting into the market. But how long will they stay there when the principal leaves or when the CEO leaves? Will they be a permanent part of the community long-term, or is it more of a quick fix, a quick opportunity rather than permanency, consistency, and sustainability? That’s what makes traditional public schools different.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. Speaking of traditional schools and innovation and things like that, we’re sitting here at Marygrove where for the last four years now, you guys have had a school that looks really different from some of the others that you might enroll your kids in. Talk about what’s going on here and the fact that you’re about to graduate the first class from this high school.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: So this is really a one-of-a-kind opportunity. When Kresge first came to me… In fact, we just had a panel discussion and Wendy Jackson came to me and started to talk about the opportunity. What do you think? She’ll tell you, I politely cut her off and I said we’re in because I knew that there were private schools and charter schools that were chomping at the bit at this opportunity.
And, coming in as superintendent, I knew this was an opportunity for DPSCD to get it right and to show that we could take something this big, at this scale, this complication, with a lot of funders, nonprofit organizations, the University of Michigan, and show everyone that our past is different to where we are now. We can problem solve, we can be strategic, cut through red tape, cut through the bureaucracy, and get things done. And I think we’ve been able to show that.
So this partnership is going to be an early-year program to 12th grade. So we have babies already on campus and it’ll go all through 12th grade. It is a neighborhood-based school, so we want neighborhood children to come here. There’s a zone of two miles in a one-mile radius that, if you apply, you get preference. And if you get into the early learning program, you have guaranteed benefits later.
It’s also a partnership with the University of Michigan. It’s also about developing future teachers. So we have residents here, undergraduate students, and graduate students that are learning how to teach through our teachers. So we’re also building a pipeline of teachers not only for here but throughout DPSCD. There’ll be a health hub here with mental health support, dental, and medical. Not only for the students, faculty, and staff but the greater community.
So I think this is not only a one-of-a-kind initiative but scalable in many different ways. The teaching part and the health hub component. And lastly, it’s about revitalizing the community. And that goes back to what makes traditional public schools different. They’re neighborhood-based.
And I’ve said this, I’m proud of the new buildings we have and the new stadium we have in the city, but we’re not going to transform the city unless we transform education. And I think that can only happen at scale through traditional public education. You’re going to always have good charter schools here and there, but that’s not scale. And we can’t talk about transformation and new generational opportunities if we’re not talking about strengthening traditional public education.
Stephen Henderson: So how do you take something like this and scale it? Do you create other examples of this across the city or do you take what you’re doing here and install it in existing schools?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: I think it’s a little bit of both. Some of the work that we’re doing with Michigan about professional development, more project-based learning, especially at the secondary level, and a lot of the continuity and partnership among teachers on grade levels. That’s scalable throughout the district. The teacher pipeline, obviously. The health hub is something that we want to build out in all the neighborhood schools throughout the district to overcome some of the obstacles that get in the way of consistent attendance.
But I think that there’s also an opportunity here on the facility part. So, a very old building, obviously, and private money to upgrade it. But I think long term there’s an opportunity for some of our older buildings, if we get it right here, to show private sponsors and donors on how some older buildings could be transformed, preserved, and sustained with private investment.
Stephen Henderson: I want to talk about the $700 million that is coming in through ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) to help with infrastructure in the schools, principally. I’ve covered schools for a long time in the city. I don’t know that we’ve had many bond issues that have brought us more money at one time to do that. So talk about what you want to do and why it will matter to kids every day.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, I think that the biggest impact for children and staff will be air conditioning. Right now, only about 20% of our schools have air conditioning. And people will say, I went to school, we didn’t have air conditioning. Well, it’s 2022 and air conditioning is part of our life. And when you get into June and even certain days in August and September, it can be hot. We have to close schools or go half days. It gets uncomfortable when it gets warm. So that’s significant.
But, going back to neighborhood schools, investing in a brand-new Pershing building, a brand-new Cody, building a new building in southwest Detroit with an arts focus to feed into Detroit School of the Arts. So on a day-to-day basis, just buildings that are not going to disrupt learning around better HVAC systems, better roofs, and sort of mundane day-to-day things that can be highly disruptive to learning. But beyond that, innovative and some new school buildings, especially to preserve some neighborhood schools.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah, that idea of building schools, renovating schools, retrofitting schools. It fits in a bigger context of the mismatch with where schools are, what their capacity is, and where kids are. I mean, we’re still kind of operating a system that is like a suit that’s too big. You can’t cut a sleeve off. You’ve got to tailor it.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Yeah. Part of the— We called it the Facility Master Planning. That didn’t happen in generations. Coming into an organization this size, the district had no master plan on how to even use the buildings and upgrade. So we did that through outside audits and reviews. But part of deciding where to invest the $700 million came from two months of community engagement. And part of the conversation was we don’t want to just take from the community as was done during emergency management, but can we take and give something back in return that’s better?
So part of the plan, obviously, the HVAC system and the new buildings got most of the attention. But part of the plan is to phase out, I believe, 6-7 schools. And that goes back to trying to right-size the district. So not closing because what we didn’t want to do is just take children out of one building and put them somewhere else, because I think that just replicates sort of the sins of the past, but instead phasing them out. So not adding kindergarten or first grade and as the kids get older, you’re just phasing out lower grades. And if parents just opt out to go to a nearby school, then so be it.
But part of this work is also right fitting the district to population and adding schools in higher level populations or growing populations like Southwest Detroit. And that’s why we’re building a new K-8 there. So, doing the hard difficult work and making hard decisions, but doing it in a way that’s sensitive to the community and not just moving kids from one school to the other.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah, I was going to say, that’s hard to do even when there is a good reason. You talk to someone in the neighborhood, they’ve had that school there for 50, 60, 70 years in some cases, and they don’t want to lose it.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: It was a hard decision, but I think the broader community understood that those hard decisions had to be made. But how can we do it and still protect children’s education and not disrupt it? And I think that was the balance that we found. And the schools that will be phased out will be demolished. So we’re not going to increase the number of vacant buildings or vacant school buildings throughout the city because part of that $700 million is earmarked to demolish those buildings. So we’ll be left with only a couple of schools that we own DPSCD that are buildings that are vacant.
Stephen Henderson: I want to talk just a little about the future. Things are getting back to normal. What are your expectations or what would you tell a parent their expectations should be for how quickly we recover from everything that’s happened over the last three years?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, I think there will be long-lasting negative impacts of the pandemic. I mean, I’m dealing with it. It was not easy managing the district during the Pandemic. And that affected our teachers, our principals, our parents who lost loved ones, and our children. So there is no magic wand to say… We have to live with that history. But I am confident, and I would tell any parent this, is that by the end of this academic year, if you send your child to school consistently, we’re going to not only show a year of growth but probably two years of growth and be even closer to being at an above grade level performer.
I know it’s not a matter of I wish, or I hope. In 2018 – 2019 we did it. We moved the needle academically and I know we can. It’s not about doing things radically different, it’s just going back to the work that we were doing, and I think adding and filling some gaps that we had around mental health and some broader holistic approaches to supporting families, which I think we’re doing a lot better as a district. So the average parent needs to know that at the end of this year we’re going to see improvement in student achievement. We just need parents to do their part by sending their children to school on a day-to-day basis.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. Okay, we’ve got some questions from folks who are watching the town hall. Appreciate that. Marva on Facebook says, what’s the goal for more parental involvement in schools?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, this is not part of the work that you ever get to. You never say we’re done, right? Yeah. It’s almost like communication. You can always refine and improve communication. So I feel that we’ve done a lot of the right things over the last year or so. Reestablishing Pitas in all schools. We have a parent academy that offers classes on financial literacy, supporting literacy in the home, filling out applications to FAFSAs, to just managing anger, and building better relationships with students. And that has engaged now probably 10,000 parents over the last six years.
In addition to that, it’s putting a parent liaison at every school, an actual parent, so that they can better connect with other parents about coming to school every day and enrolling your students. We have school advisory councils where parents sit on. But ultimately, I think just constantly reinforcing and challenging some accepted behaviors around attendance is the main issue. We just have to continue to do the outreach and the communication and just build better awareness that every day of school matters and the more that you’re in school, the better you’re going to do from a student achievement point.
Stephen Henderson: Kind of a related question, what about teachers? The relationship between teachers and the district was pretty tense at times during the pandemic. A lot of teachers felt like there was a rush back to in-person and that people weren’t being adequately kept safe. Where are you with that now?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Yeah, in my tenure, that was probably the height of renewed tension. Coming back from the peak of the pandemic. So that would’ve been the 2020-2021 school year. And my position was that it was about equity. That if private schools were going to be open and suburban school districts going to be open, then DPSCD schools were going to be open. And empower the parent to make that decision, and then let’s work with the teachers that were willing to come, and hopefully, we could be at about the right level and open schools.
Obviously, a lot of compromises took place so that schools did open, but all teachers had a choice. And that led to probably more parents keeping their children at home than they wanted but we lived to see another day, meaning we survived the pandemic. And I think the relationship with teachers is not only much better versus emergent emergency management, but it’s really strengthened over the years. Our teachers are making about $15,000 more than they were six years ago. Our beginning teachers are at almost $52,000, which is much higher than other Metro Detroit school districts.
As of today, as I sit here, we only have ten teacher vacancies and only two special education teacher vacancies when you look at our allocations versus students. So we’re nearly fully staffed on the teacher side. You know, when I started, we’d have a school with ten teacher vacancies. Today, we only have one school with two. All the other ones have one. So, you can talk a lot about relationships being better, but at the end of the day, that’s in the numbers.
We wouldn’t be able to retain and recruit the teachers that we have if they didn’t want to work in our district. Is there work that needs to be done? Absolutely. I mean, we still have to work around retention, around teacher voice, around the curriculum, and improving in professional development. Every district works through that, but I think some of our greatest challenges have been overcome. I’m looking forward to the day when our most veteran teachers are the highest paid in the country. I think the work in Detroit is the hardest and our teachers should be making $90,000 to $100,000 a year.
Stephen Henderson: And we’ve made a little progress there, is that right? But not…
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: No, I think our beginning teachers now are highly competitive in their salaries because about three-fourths of our teachers are in the top stat. Right now, they’re at about $82,000, which when I started, they were only at about $68,000. So we’ve made huge improvements, but they need to be at about $90,000 to $100,000. Now, that’s a lot of money in the budget. We can’t do that overnight, but we’re constantly trying to work towards getting that and also maximizing one-time money to add to the reoccurring salary.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah, we’ve got another question from Sharron on Facebook. How does the board, and you as a superintendent, justify supporting a separate and unequal educational landscape within the system aside from the problem with charters? I assume they’re talking about the Choice Schools.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Yeah, we hear that. And I think to some level it’s a fair criticism. But at the same time, when you look at our Exam Schools. So when we say Exam, we’re talking about Marygrove, we’re talking about Cass, we’re talking about Renaissance. And in application schools, schools like Bates and FLICS (Foreign Language and Cultural Studies Schools). It would not be in any way strategic to rid the school system of those schools. We just would not attract our highest-performing students and more of our middle-class families.
Stephen Henderson: People would leave in more numbers than they already are.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: And if I were a charter school, the first thing I would do is replicate Cass. So I do believe, we can be more… We’re certainly more equal than we ever were, even within the system on how we fund schools and how we… For example, make sure every school has an assistant principal or counselor and music and art. But there’s still work to be done, especially at high schools in being more equitable, meaning giving more to those schools that need more.
Stephen Henderson: That need it, yeah.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: But there’s also a state responsibility in that. And Gov. Whitmer has really done a good job of increasing funding for education, more funding for special needs children, the legislature has come along, but we still are toward the bottom in per-pupil funding in the country. And we’re still inequitable when you look at local funding bases in Southfield, Birmingham, where because of the need to tax locally to get state aid they keep the money beyond the minimum, which then allows them to pay teachers more, put more money in facilities, and they don’t have the day-to-day challenges that our students bring compared to theirs.
Stephen Henderson: Aliya on Facebook has a related question. Where are you going to get the money for academic recovery? You’re getting the $700 million for facilities that can’t be spent on schooling and schooling materials and things like that. Do you need more money and where are you going to get it?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: So through the last two years, we’ve used COVID relief funding, APRA funding, for afterschool programming. We expanded summer school programming. Last year we dramatically lowered class sizes to do social distancing. We hired extra teachers to anticipate that hiring teachers would be harder after the pandemic.
We’ve increased literacy support, and one-on-one small groups, but that money goes away at the end of this year, so it’ll be hard to sustain even some of the things that we did. We are going to completely revisit the budget going into 2022-2023 because we don’t have COVID relief funding and we have to deal with the fact that we have inflation. The district is dealing with inflation like everyone else.
So we have inflation, we have about a thousand or 1,500 student loss in enrollment before the pandemic, and not only inflation, but we have to continue to be competitive with teacher salaries because the market right now is favoring teachers to go where the money is highest. It’s always been that way, but it’s even more competitive now because suburban school districts are challenged with staffing. So this all means that the few dollars that we have are going to be stretched even more because of inflation, enrollment, and the need to be more competitive with salaries. So there’s a way to get there, but we’re going to have to do things dramatically different to get there.
Stephen Henderson: What things would have to, maybe, go?
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: So we’re looking at some of the extra positions we have at schools. So, do we need a dean at every school? Do we need a school culture facilitator at every school? Do we concentrate our attendance agents more in the neighborhood schools with the highest levels of chronic absenteeism? Those are the questions that we’re asking right now.
Stephen Henderson: Those are tough things to lose.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Well, we need them all, but…
Stephen Henderson: They would have a consequence.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: But if we keep everything the same, we’re not going to be able to invest strategically in the things that we have to invest more in.
Stephen Henderson: Okay.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: I wish I had the dollars, but we have to function off of what we have.
Stephen Henderson: That’s really a state function and a state conversation.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: Yeah.
Stephen Henderson: Well, it was great to have you here.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti: You too. Thank you.
Stephen Henderson: That’s going to do it for us on this One Detroit town hall. I want to thank you for joining us. For more One Detroit coverage and “Future of Work” town halls, you can visit OneDetroitPBS.org. We’ll see you next time.
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